The launch of his site, rivalling similar platforms like the UK-based Seat61 and German offering Omio serves to further demonstrate the demand. Meanwhile in a survey for the European Investment Bank released in January, 36% of Europeans said they had already started flying less for holidays in order to fight climate change, with 75% intending to cut down on plane travel in 2020 (a New Year’s resolution that, thanks to the coronavirus, most will have been able to keep).
European governments – encouraged by the shift in the public mood on climate change – are also reinvesting in rail travel in order to help meet EU carbon-cutting targets. In France, home to dozens of overnight rail services in the 1990s, there are currently just two sleeper lines running. But in July, President Emmanuel Macron promised to redevelop the network. He’d previously argued that sleeper services weren’t profitable, but told the nation the move “translates into savings and a reduction of CO2 emissions”. Within the last few months, Germany and Italy have also announced they’re planning to spend billions of euros revitalising rail connections in a bid to make their networks greener and more efficient.
Public and private companies are clearly betting on the train travel trend continuing, too. Austria and Switzerland’s federal railways have clubbed together to expand the number of inter-country overnight services operated through their partnership, with a long-term mission of connecting cities as far apart as Zürich and Barcelona. And Eurostar passengers will be able to travel directly from Amsterdam to London from the end of October.
How safe is train travel during Covid-19?
One key question, however, is what role coronavirus will play in how – and whether – people want to travel over the next few years.
The air quality on trains is actually poorer than on planes, which usually mix in fresh air from outside with high-efficiency filters. But many people “still believe the risk of coronavirus transmission to be lower on trains”, explains Charlene Rohr, a senior research leader who’s been forecasting post Covid-19 travel trends for RAND Europe, an independent research institute. She says some travellers will therefore prioritise train travel due to perceived risks from recirculated air, “because seats on planes are closer together than on trains”, or because they have “concerns about crowding levels in airports”.
That’s been the experience of Jeni Fulton, 38, an executive editor for European art fairs, who has opted to use night trains for business travel between Germany and Switzerland during the pandemic. Although her primary motivation for using trains rather than planes is to limit her carbon footprint, she feels trains are “probably safer with regard to Covid-19” than planes, since she is in contact with fewer people during the journey. “I will definitely consider taking a night train [more in future], especially if I am staying more than a couple of nights,” she says.
But other travellers remain unconvinced. “Sleeping on a night train would not give us the same peace of mind as before,” says Diana Oliveira, a 28-year-old PhD student from Portugal who runs The Nerdy Globetrotters social media accounts with her boyfriend Karn Vohra, from India. “If you want to be protected as much as possible, then a flight seems like a good option, since the time exposure to others would be reduced,” she argues. “Secondly, it is a matter of convenience – wearing a face covering for two hours on a flight or for 10 hours on a train journey.”