Flight shame is reviving overnight rail travel in Europe

Train travel means fewer emissions and more scenery.
Train travel means fewer emissions and more scenery.
Image: Paul McGee/Getty Images
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Sweden’s rail authority will run more overnight sleeper trains to serve passengers skipping airlines amid escalating climate concerns. The new offering by Trafikverket will dispatch trains from Malmö, Sweden in the evening, scoop up more passengers an hour later Copenhagen, and arrive in Cologne, Germany at 6am. Onward connections from there will allow passengers to arrive in London, Paris, Munich, and Amsterdam before lunchtime.

Trafikverket officials called it a “first step” to adding more direct connections for overnight passengers as the Swedish government wants to offer convenient alternatives to short-haul flights.

That’s a reversal for Europe. In recent years, overnight service has been curtailed as budget airlines stole away train passengers. But the “flight shame” movement—vliegschaamte in Dutch, flygskam in Swedish, and flugscham in German—has lured some travelers back to the rails. French,  Dutch and German lawmakers are discussing bans on short domestic and international flights served by high-speed trains. Germany has cut rail fares by 10% to encourage ridership, and the country’s Green Party is pushing to end the tax exemption on aviation fuel in favor of increasing funding for train travel. Traveling by rail cuts emissions by 70% to 90% compared to flying.

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That has encouraged rail operators in Europe to increase their offerings. After nearly two decades, the Brussels-to-Vienna overnight train by Austrian Railways (ÖBB) is rolling again. ÖBB now plans to expand hotel-like amenities on its 27 overnight train routes by 2022, with more coming.

But there are still plenty of hurdles to clear for trains to compete more effectively. Unlike international flights, travelers crossing borders may need visa or passport clearances even if they’re not disembarking. And budget airlines have slashed rates so low, they’re beating rail on some routes. ÖBB’s Brussels-to-Vienna overnight train costs €29.90 ($33) for a seat and €49.90 ($55) for a bed. On Sunday, one Austrian budget airline was touting online prices of € 33 ($36) for the same route.