A City Night Line train from Berlin reaches its final destination at Zürich HB station. The last CNL departure from Berlin on this route is on Thursday 8 December 2016 (photo © hidden europe).
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, co-editors of hidden europe magazine, take a look at big changes in night train provision in Germany. If you are interested in finding out more about Nicky and Susanne's writing, why not take a look at their Advent special offers for hidden europe magazine. hidden europe focuses on offbeat places with a great emphasis on unusual journeys, many of them by train.
It is that time of year when European rail operators introduce new timetables. In most countries, the 2017 schedules come into effect on Sunday 11 December 2016. The headline story in Germany is that next week marks the demise of the City Night Line brand.
Much has been made in mainstream media of the decision by Deutsche Bahn (DB) to withdraw from the premium end of the night train market. This means that DB will no longer run couchettes and sleepers on its overnight trains – which were marketed as City Night Line (CNL) services. There will still be DB trains aplenty criss-crossing Germany by night. Henceforth, the best that DB can offer its nocturnal customers is an ordinary seat.
The pundits say that this austerity approach to overnight travel is DB’s attempt to compete head-on with the overnight coach market, demand for which has grown exponentially over the last year or two. Throw in the key fact that the CNL rolling stock is no longer in its first youth, plus huge competition from the airline industry and a customer base that opts for low-cost wherever possible, and it’s easy to see where DB’s decision comes from.
Yet, one might argue that a good fleet of night trains, including smart, modern sleepers and a decent restaurant car, could recover the unique selling point of overnight rail travel: namely the creature comforts of a sleeping car. There’s nothing to quite match the pleasure of dinner on board a train, a nightcap and then turning in to snooze in crisp, white sheets.
It’s interesting that while some countries – such as Scotland, Finland, Russia and Austria – are making big investments in new fleets of sleeping cars, Germany’s national rail operator is shifting to the bargain-basement market for overnight travel with a range of new no-frills services.
Does the management at DB not get it? The entire appeal of the overnight train, both historically and today, is that you can get a decent night’s sleep while travelling across Europe. The prospect of a restless night in an ordinary seat is not the way to fill night trains.
Happily, Austrian rail operator ÖBB takes a more enlightened approach to overnight train travel. So ÖBB is stepping in to pick up many routes hitherto operated by DB under its CNL brand. From 11 December, ÖBB will market its comprehensive network of overnight services as Nightjet trains – a tad misleading for many of these trains will trundle through the night at a modest pace, so ensuring that passengers can enjoy a decent period of sleep before reaching their destination.
The existing CNL trains from both Hamburg and Berlin to Zürich will thus be run as ÖBB Nightjet services from later this month. The final CNL departures to Zürich from both German cities will be on the evening of 8 December. ÖBB’s new Nightjet link to Zürich will run daily from 11 December.
The demise of CNL and the ascendancy of ÖBB lead to some changes to the overall pattern of night train services. Dresden loses its long-standing overnight sleepers to Cologne and Basel (although Dresden passengers bound for Basel will still be able to travel to Leipzig and join a Switzerland-bound ÖBB Nightjet there).
Passengers will no longer be able to board a sleeping car in Amsterdam and alight next morning in either Munich or Zürich. These losses are offset by new opportunities. Innsbruck, which already enjoys direct overnight trains to such far-flung spots as Menton and Moscow, will now have comfortable night sleepers leaving every evening for both Hamburg and Düsseldorf. Both trains will also carry cars.
The existing CNL train from Zürich to Prague (which routes circuitously via Basel and Erfurt) runs for the last time on Friday 9 December. Two evenings later, a new overnight service from Zürich to the Czech capital will start operation.
Through sleeping cars to Prague will be attached to the long-standing overnight train from Zürich to Vienna and Budapest. At Linz, the carriages bound for Prague will be detached, to then run north into the Czech Republic on a new early morning train for Prague, which leaves Linz at 06.35. That new crack-of-dawn Linz to Prague train is part of a wider package of service enhancements on this route, which sees the number of direct trains between the cities increase from two to four per day and journey times trimmed by up to 46 minutes.
The new Zürich to Prague overnight train via Linz creates some intriguing new travel opportunities. Will crowds flock to use a direct overnight service from Austria’s Vorarlberg region to South Bohemia? With a departure from Feldkirch at 23.24, passenger can travel in a comfortable sleeper to reach Ceské Budejovice just before nine the following morning.
It’s important to remember that the great majority of Europe’s night trains are unaffected by DB’s decision to axe its entire CNL division. It will still be possible to travel in the comfort of a night sleeper from Warsaw to Épernay in the heart of France’s Champagne region. Or, for that matter, from Nice to Vienna. Both routes operate weekly in the new timetables.
It’ll still be perfectly possible to book a sleeping berth on trains leaving Karlsruhe every evening to Berlin, where former CNL passengers will find a warm welcome on the new ÖBB Nightjet plying that route. ÖBB sleeper services will also depart daily from Hannover to Munich, from Koblenz to Vienna, and from Passau to Cologne.
Night trains with proper sleepers will still leave Munich every evening for over a dozen cities across Italy. The existing overnight services from Zürich and Munich to Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia continue much the same as now. There are some changes in train services to and from Russia, and we’ll review developments there more fully in the next issue of European Rail News. But, as a teaser, we should just mention here that a new twice-weekly service from Moscow to Berlin will use new Talgo stock which will greatly reduce the journey time between the two capitals.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, 20 January 2017
@Julian Thank you very much for your comment. Just want to point out that there is a night train from Paris to Warsaw which might suit you. Not sure that the demise of the Warsaw-Cologne sleeper (sad as it may be) forces you to henceforth go to Lithuania by plane.
julian barker, 19 January 2017
Far from being clapped out, the Warsaw-Cologne sleeper gave me the best night trip ever. I travel from Britain to Lithuania via Poland and wanted to make it quicker by doing sleepers in both directions but now I shall have to take a plane.
Richard M, 16 January 2017
A lot of gratitude is due to Austrian Railways for taking on many night routes. One big gap in western Europe is northwards to Scandinavia. With no ferries at all from the UK to either Denmark, Norway and Sweden any longer, options are limited and basically involve travelling on day trains and staying overnight in Hamburg or similar.
Laurie, 2 January 2017
From Australia . Is the train from Prague to Lvov still running? It seemed to have better sleeping cars than the Krakow to Lvov train. Think it also had a section from Bratislava. Would be nice if they restored the overnight service from Berlin to Krakow, as you now have to go via Szczecin.
Tom, 11 December 2016
Might it be possible to include maps indicating the routes of the services described in your article?
Filip, 7 December 2016
For me it's a small disaster as in order to get from Strasbourg to Wrocław, I've been always using the CNL on the Offenburg-Dresden stretch.
About The Authors
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book will be published in mid-April 2022. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.