All aboard the night train: European Sleeper launches Prague-Brussels service

A new night train route has just been launched between Prague and Brussels, also making stops in Amsterdam, Berlin, and several other smaller cities along the way. Train and sustainability enthusiasts are extremely excited about the new route, but with the ever-present temptation of cheap flights available, will it catch on? I went along for the train’s first ride to see for myself.

Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

Once you’ve seen it, who can forget ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, or the night train scene in Pedro Almodovar's 2016 film 'Julieta'?

There is something deeply romantic about sleeper trains that seems to have captured the imaginations of countless film directors and to have endured in the collective psyche long after overnight trains actually stopped being used regularly as a means of transport. For that is the sad truth – although people find the idea of night trains deeply romantic, the reality is that the vast majority of long-distance journeys within Europe are now undertaken by plane.

Reading on train | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

In 2014, the British newspaper The Guardian published an article about how many sleeper train routes across the continent were being “silently phased out”. Unable to compete with budget airlines offering cheap flights to anywhere, sleeper services gradually disappeared over several decades until there were precious few remaining.

But with the ever-looming threat of climate change and global warming, and with more and more people becoming interested in sustainability, it might just be time for a night train renaissance. According to the OECD, trains provide 10 percent of transport capacity globally, but only 2 percent of transport emissions.

However, national rail operators are reluctant to invest in night trains, as they are not as profitable as daily commuter services. So with national rail operators not taking the initiative, smaller private players have had to step in to fill the gap.

Chris Engelsman and Elmer van Buuren | Photo: European Sleeper

Enter European Sleeper – a small start-up founded by two Dutch train enthusiasts, Chris Engelsman and Elmer van Buuren, entirely crowd-funded by small investors. Ten months ago they launched their first route from Brussels to Berlin, and last week they extended the route to Prague. And I was lucky enough to be invited on the inaugural ride from Prague to Brussels.

A European network of night trains

“We are fully focussed on international trains. We are fully focussed on a night train network at the European level, and we are therefore not distracted by domestic trains, we are not distracted by national issues, we are not distracted by other products. We are by nature a European initiative.”

Chris Engelsman | Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

That is Chris Engelsman, one of the two co-founders of the European Sleeper. He is a personable, affable guy, and his passion for the project is evident.

But he is also realistic about the problems involved, such as the bureaucracy of having to deal with all the various national carriers in all the countries the train passes through (although he says the collaboration with Czech partners, especially the Czech national carrier české dráhy, has been very positive), and the lack of available night train coaches:

“Railways have not been investing in night trains for decades and we and other initiatives are still struggling with that legacy. So we are running with relatively old coaches – they’re fine and they are comfortable, but they have their issues now and again, and this is challenging. Also, if we want to extend the service and run the train daily, we need many more coaches, which are not available at the moment, so that’s a struggle.”

Elmer van Buuren | Photo: European Sleeper

Both Chris Engelsman and Elmer van Buuren say that Prague was always the first destination they had in mind, but due to maintenance works on the tracks they had to start with the service running only between Berlin and Brussels before extending it to the Czech capital.

“There was really a lack of an East-West connection. We also see a North-South opportunity but this is much more complicated to establish because of all kinds of old-fashioned railways being in the way. Whereas the connection between Prague and Amsterdam and Brussels is actually possible and a connection that’s really missing. And the demand for trips to the Czech Republic is very high.”

The European Sleeper connects four countries and four European capitals – Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague – as well as several smaller stops along the way. For Elmer van Buuren, the connection to Prague is even more personal.

Photo: European Sleeper

“It’s been my dream for 25 years to run a train company – but it’s also 25 years ago that I was first in the Czech Republic and somehow got feelings for this country. I decided that one day in my professional life I would like to do something with the Czech Republic. That was before the Czech Republic was even part of the European Union. Now, it is really good to see that with our train, by fulfilling the dream of Chris and me, we can actually play a role in connecting the Czech Republic with the capital of Europe, Brussels, in the year of the 20-year anniversary of the accession of the Czech Republic to the European Union.”

From the Czech side, there is optimism that the European Sleeper will be a net gain for the country. František Reismüller, head of CzechTourism, hopes it will encourage more Dutch and Belgian people to travel to Czechia – and to bring their bikes.

František Reismüller | Photo: Karolína Němcová,  Czech Radio

“Our main topic for this year is active tourism. We hope that Dutch and Belgian tourists will bring their bikes – which is important, you can take your bike on the train – and come to Czechia and enjoy the active tourism we have to offer. We see that just a very small portion of tourists from the Netherlands and Belgium travel by train to Czechia, because it was quite difficult to get here before. I used to live in Brussels and it took the whole night and two transfers. Now, it’s easy, so for the people who didn’t have the chance before, now they do.”

He also sees it as an opportunity to help achieve one of CzechTourism’s other main objectives – getting tourists out of Prague to see other parts of the country. The train stops not only in Prague, but also in Děčín, close to the Bohemian Switzerland National Park, and in Ústí nad Labem.

Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

“We are supporting this initiative – not only to support the European Sleeper, but to support travelling by train in Czechia in general. This is an opportunity for us to bring people not only to beautiful Prague – because everybody wants to see Prague, of course – but also to bring people to other regions of Czechia.”

He is also optimistic that Czechs will use the service.

“I think Czechs are train enthusiasts – we love trains. We have the densest network of railway tracks in Europe. So I believe Czechs will definitely try it.”

European Sleeper Train Brussels - Prague: Inaugural Journey in Sleeping Car

The heart of European culture to the heart of European institutions

An obvious target group for a Prague-Brussels European sleeper train might be Czech ministers travelling to Brussels for EU meetings. Currently Czech ministers and other Czechs working in European institutions fly to Brussels every week in fairly large numbers, so the night train might be a compelling alternative option – you leave Prague in the evening, and wake up in Brussels in the morning. Indeed, Chris Engelsman says that they took this into consideration when planning the train schedule, which is currently set to run three times a week.

Arrival in Brussels | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

“One of the reasons for starting from Prague on Sunday is to cater for that and enable people to start Monday morning in Brussels.”

At the press launch event before the first inaugural train ride, Czech ministers certainly wax lyrical about the new service, such as Martin Kupka, the Czech Minister for Transport.

“Today we open the new symbolic bridge from the heart of European culture to the heart of European institutions. And I think that it could also be the next step to the renaissance of night trains in the whole European Union.”

Press conference | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

But whether they will actually use it for their own journeys to Brussels remains to be seen. Martin Dvořák, Minister for European Affairs, is very enthusiastic about the service:

“I think it’s a wonderful symbol. It’s a message that we understand our responsibility towards the future of the planet, to our kids and grandchildren. This is something I really believe in. I also think it must be a very nice trip, overnight, to sleep and sit down with your friends, maybe eat something good. I am really looking forward to have this opportunity to travel with the European Sleeper.”

Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

But when I ask him if he will use the service himself to get to Brussels, he says that the train’s schedule doesn’t work for him.

“For me, the problem is that my meetings are regularly on Tuesdays, so I will not be able to use this train yet. But they promised me that in the future they will very likely have a train every day, so I hope I will be able to use it.”

Whether the train will end up running every day of course depends on how successful it is now – how much interest there is in the service and how many tickets are sold in the coming months.

A way to bring your bike – and pets

Photo: European Sleeper

There are certainly many things to recommend the European Sleeper, beyond the fact that it is romantic, sustainable and environmentally-friendly. It is also far more comfortable than travelling by plane – yes, it takes longer, but you have more space to spread out, you don’t have to spend the whole journey strapped into your seat, you can get up and walk around – and you spend the majority of the time sleeping anyway.

There also isn’t all the hassle that you get with airports – having to show up 2 hours before your flight, remembering to pack all your liquids in a plastic bag and that you can’t pack liquids of over 100ml, having to hurriedly down your bottle of water before you get to security, having to take off your shoes and belt and take out all your electronics – all the many little annoyances and inconveniences, and all the waiting around before boarding – all that is removed.

You can show up to the station even 5 or 10 minutes before the train departs without breaking a sweat, and when you arrive, there is no waiting at baggage reclaim, no long journey to get from the airport to the city centre – your luggage is right with you, and you arrive right in the heart of the city. In that sense, it is also convenient and time-saving – whereas with a flight, you would need to get up at 4am to arrive in Brussels at 9.30, by night train you arrive at the same time having had a full night’s sleep.

Photo: Ferdinand Hauser,  Radio Prague International

Lastly, there are all kinds of things you can take with you on the train that you can’t take on a plane, or only with great difficulty – heavy or oversized luggage, bikes, and even pets! Cats and dogs are allowed on the European Sleeper, as long as you book a private compartment – and indeed, as I wander up and down the train, I even spot a man travelling with his very cute husky.

And what do the other travellers on board think of the service?

“I’m Hannah. I live in Belgium in the countryside, in the Ardennes, but I’m from Berlin and I still have family and friends there, so that’s why I’m travelling tonight.”

For part of the journey back to Prague, I share a compartment with Hannah and her six-month-old baby. When I ask her why she chose to travel by night train, her answer is emphatic.

“It’s just the best way to travel and I’m very happy that night trains are coming back again. The normal train is very expensive and not so nice to use. I’m with my baby here, so for me and baby, it’s perfect just to sleep and to be there tomorrow morning. I love the night train!”

Breakfast on train | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

Of course, it remains to be seen whether anyone other than night train enthusiasts will use the service regularly. Chris Engelsman tells me that one thing that puts people off is that private compartments on the train are expensive, but people don’t want to travel in a shared couchette with strangers nowadays – that privacy is much more important to people than it perhaps used to be in the past.

Although this is a sentiment I certainly understand, in my experience, travelling by night train and sharing a compartment with strangers has always been a lovely experience. The people I’ve shared with have always been friendly, polite and respectful, and usually interesting and fun to talk to as well.

Perhaps it’s because we’re all night train enthusiasts and we have something in common – perhaps even people who like travelling by night train have more in common than just a love for train travel. But whatever the reason, one of the things I like about travelling by night train is precisely that you get to meet interesting and often likeminded people.

View of the Elbe River from the European Sleeper | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

My own experience on the European Sleeper was a really pleasant one – although I’m a light sleeper and didn’t get the best night’s sleep, I met lovely people, got to see the beautiful scenery of the Elbe River and the dramatic rock faces passing by, and arrived in Brussels with the whole day ahead of me. Although there are downsides – no showers, no Wi-Fi, and at the moment, no dining car (although Chris Engelsman tells me this is something they are considering adding) – overall, I still find it a far more pleasant experience than flying or even travelling by car.

European Sleeper has more routes planned for later years – and I can only hope that the project will be a success.