Midnight Trains to George Street: Edinburgh dawning for Paris sleeper train
A European operator has their overnight sights set on Edinburgh. Wake up in the capital of Scotland, having gone to sleep in the capital of France. That is the Midnight Trains modern take on the Auld Alliance, the dream of union between the thrones of Versailles and Holyrood, except this iteration requires the accedence of the Old Enemy, England.
This scenario is the dream of moonlit operator Midnight Trains, a brand new entrant into the developing market of premium sleeper trains. They have revealed long term plans for overnight connections from their French base. Those plans include connecting with Edinburgh, and tapping into the business and leisure travel market between the two cities, perhaps even as early as next year.
Edinburgh and Paris already enjoy a healthy travel connection, but not since the days of the stillborn Nightstar project, an overnight version of the equally unrealised Regional Eurostar service, has there been a viable option for connecting the two capital cities by rail. That could soon change, if the dreams of open access operator Midnight Trains come true. There may be a few challenges to overcome, not least gauging and capacity, but if Midnight Trains get the nod, then passengers could soon be nodding off in the Athens of the North, and yawning awake in the City of Light.
Hotel on wheels rolled out again
Sleepers have really woken up in continental Europe. Now, on the island where they never really went to bed, Britain may be on the verge of seeing its first new sleeper service since almost all services were withdrawn in the mid 1990s. Now, for the first time ever, a company is planning an international sleeper to connect Paris and Edinburgh. Midnight Trains, one of several new operators given the green light on mainland Europe, promises a ‘hotel on wheels’. That’s something Scottish passengers will have heard before, from the domestic operator Caledonian Sleeper. However, this French connection proposes to live up to its billing, with an eventual network covering destinations as diverse as Rome and Porto, all via a hub operation in Paris. The news comes hard on the heels of Renfe’s roll out of a new season of sleepers in Spain.
They’re not the only new players in the market. “The night train is such a lovely way of travelling. I am a great fan of it myself”, says Chris Engelsman of the Dutch based European Sleeper, which is already connecting Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany under the cover of darkness. “It’s not only the romance, or the adventurous part, it’s also quite efficient and an economical way of travelling”, he says. Although, Times of London newspaper travel correspondent Anthony Lambert says you do have to factor in the accommodation, travel ticket and time saved to make that work – at least in the UK.
Sustainable sleepers needed urgently
“You can save a hotel night, and there is a huge demand”, argues Engelsman. “It may be a little old fashioned but also because the whole product has been neglected for decades by the large railways in mainland Europe. We decided to step in because the demand has always been there and for Sustainabilty reasons it may be a little bit more urgent at the moment as well.” In the UK, sleeper services have become rare but have never died out. The service now branded as Caledonian Sleeper has proved perennially popular, even if it has been the subject of much controversy since an expensive and troublesome refit a few years ago. The company managing the service has in the last few weeks been thrown out by the Scottish Government, which has taken on the service as a publicly owned operation. All that aside, the Caledonian Sleeper is less a train and more a small network. The southern end of the service departs in two lengthy portions form London Euston, picking up passengers from a number of stops in the south of England and delivering them to destinations as near as Carlisle in the very north west of England, to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and a host of Highland towns and villages.
One other service survives, and thrives, in the far west of England. The Night Riviera, which is operated as part of the Great Western Railway franchise, connect Cornwall and Devon with London on a route that in daytime can take at least five and half hours, end to end. The sleeper serving Penzance has always been considered a Bsuiness lifeline for the county of Cornwall, and as such is always heavily booked. It is a much simpler“out and back” operation, without the complex (and sleep disturbing) marshalling that punctuates the Scottish services. However, sleep may not be immediately on the mind of Midnight Trains passengers from Edinburgh, who may expect to depart the Scottish capital several hours before their domestic counterparts, while the tail end of the commuter rush hour is still winding down.
Corridor toilets out, en suite showers in
“There is a huge spectrum of sleeping car trains across Europe”, said Anthony Lambert, the travel correspondent with the London Times, in an interview on the newspaper’s own Times Radio. He went on to speak about the limitations, which are being addressed. “You have to buy into the concept. You have to pad down the corridor [to visit the toilet]. There is no en-suite shower, but that is something being addressed. Particularly by the new trains being built by Austrian railways, who really have picked up the baton for sleeping car trains.” It should be noted that the new Scottish sleepers are Spanish built by CAF, demonstrating that there is diversity in the market.
“We are really a small start up from the night train community”, concluded Engelsman. “It is both markets for sure, and I’m not directly thinking of all the captains of industry, but there is a large congress market and for university [academic] exchanges and government exchanges. Certainly the business market ands the same for leisure, family visits and city trips – many opportunities.” Engelsman says that their service, which already runs between Brussels and Berlin has some added attractions. “We are taking the most scenic route into Berlin, over all the viaducts. So you can see all the highlight so fo Berlin in the morning as an added bonus for free. Next year we hope to extend the service to Dresden and Prague and there are loverly landscapes along the Elbe Valley. It adds to the experience of course.”
The new overnight operator Midnight Trains may not be considering more British destinations just yet. However, further opportunities to connect the UK with continental Europe by overnight train do exist, even if the complexities seem to be holding back development. However, domestic expansion has been considered, particularly as a politically expedient way to connect remote parts of Scotland with the seat of government. One day, en route to the northern islands, there may yet be midnight trains to Georgemas (Junction).
Feature image: photoeverywhere.co.uk / Creative Commons 2.5