Warsaw has just moved closer to Munich, Berlin nudged towards Paris, and Aachen slipped nearer to Salzburg. These are just three examples of city pairs that are newly linked, as of this week, by direct night trains. None of these city pairs currently has direct daytime trains, so the overnight options create a web of opportunities. As always in December, rail operators across Europe are introducing new schedules, along the way creating tantalising links where none existed before.
In Britain the changes ushered in with the 2024 timetables are hardly dramatic; many services have just been tweaked by a minute or two here and there. There are extra trains on weekdays between Nottingham and Birmingham and some thinning out (yet again) of TransPennine Express schedules.
However, across the Channel, the unstoppable rail renaissance continues apace, with many new services in the 2024 schedules. In much of Europe those 2024 timetables were introduced on 10 December. There are exceptions. A new high-speed line through Spain’s Cantabrian mountains opened in late November, and new timetables for some routes in Poland and the Baltic states won’t come into effect for another week or two.
Winners and losers
For the most part, the 2024 timetables are good news for rail travellers. Of course, there are winners and losers. Copenhagen secures more direct services to Hamburg, while Aarhusloses out as its direct trains to Hamburg are axed. Few will shed too many tears in Aarhus as the compensation for losing those twice-daily direct trains is a new connecting service every two hours from Denmark’s second-largest city which, with an easy same-platform change of train in Kolding, will get travellers to Hamburg faster than the direct trains.
Rail services shape our mental maps of Europe. The German city of Nuremberg was for years a jumping-off point for rail journeys to the Czech Republic. The range of Czech destinations from Nuremberg has been trimmed over the years, but until last week there were still five direct trains each day to the Czech Republic. Now there are none, although, in fairness, there is no shortage of other cross-border routes linking Germany with the Czech Republic.
Each year’s new timetables create links between communities that just a few weeks earlier were unconnected. Paris and Berlin now have a direct night train, reinstating a link that was severed at the start of the pandemic when the Russian Railways train from Paris to Berlin and Moscow ran for the last time. As of this week, the historic cities of Aachen and Halle find themselves linked by a new direct night train. A Nightjet leaves the city of Charlemagne just after 9pm and arrives 10 hours later in Halle, the city in central Germany which so profoundly influenced the Pietist movement. What better journey for anyone interested in German history?
Tour operators and travel agents are quick to pore over each December’s new train schedules to create new itineraries. Cat Jones, CEO of flight-free operator Byway Travel, says: “All these new trains across Europe are creating a real buzz at Byway. We’re now able to pair places in holidays where direct trains didn’t exist before. The new Euronight direct sleeper linking Salzburg with Kraków, for example, creates a real opportunity for culture vultures to combine [trips to] two very different cities.”
That new Salzburg-Kraków link takes almost 10 hours and is among many new city pairs opened up by the new night train linking Munich with Warsaw. The Warsaw-bound train that left Munich on the evening of 10 December was the first direct departure from Bavaria to Poland since 2010.
In the new timetables, we see many city pairs that are already well served by direct daytime trains securing an overnight link. From this week, travellers can snooze in the comfort of a sleeping car from Dresden to Budapest, Vienna and Graz. All three cities have long had daytime trains from Dresden, but now there is an extra option.
Even in France, where in 2016 Le Monde proclaimed “Le train de nuit: c’est fini!” there is an upswing in demand for overnight trains. Béziers and Montpellier will now have a direct link with Paris on some nights, with the first departures tomorrow. Here, of course, there is competition from direct daytime trains, with the fastest TGVs dashing from Montpellier to the capital in little more than three hours. Another new French overnight train is the Aurillac-Paris service, where there are no competing direct daytime trains. As with all French night trains, they offer little by way of creature comforts. There are no sleeping cars, so passengers must choose between a reclining seat and a couchette. But prices are keen, with fares from €19 for seats and €29 for couchettes.
Much has been made of the fact that Europe’s rail operators often focus on their domestic markets and neglect cross-border connections. The ambition of some rail companies does flag as they approach international frontiers, but there are plenty of improved cross-border opportunities. This week has seen increased frequency between Munich and Zürich, hard on the heels of big improvements in November, when direct trains from Stuttgart to Zürich were reinstated. On the busy Berlin-Amsterdam route, journey time has been trimmed by 30 minutes, to under six hours.
The number of direct daytime trains from Kraków to both Vienna and Berlin doubles from one to two and the Polish city of Wrocław acquires a new early-morning direct train to Vienna, returning late afternoon. From last weekend, there has been a second direct train from Vienna to Ukraine. Complementing the longstanding Euronight service from Vienna to Kyiv, the morning departure from Vienna to Romania now also has through-carriages to Chop, in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region. It is a mark of how EU-based rail operators promoting better connectivity with western Ukraine. Czech private operator RegioJet is said to be exploring the possibility of a new direct overnight train from Prague to Chop from early 2024.
It is even possible that cross-border services from Lithuania to Latvia may be reinstated before the end of the year. The habitually cautious editors of the wonderful European Rail Timetable suggest in their newly published winter edition that “a through Vilnius to Riga train is expected to start running from 27 December”. If this comes to pass, it will be the first public train service between the two capitals since before the pandemic. And it will mean dedicated rail travellers will once again be able to travel by train all the way from England to Estonia without resorting to a bus for that cross-border hop from Lithuania into Latvia.
Nicky Gardner is the co-author of Europe by Rail: the Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of the book is available from the Guardian bookshop