On both sides of the Atlantic, antsy travelers in this post-pandemic era are booking flights as airlines are reporting a surge in traffic. But the sudden increase of air travelers has come with countless hiccups as a convergence of disengaged employees, bad weather and technological snafus have caused more flights to end up either delayed or canceled. Could train travel become an option?
As anyone who’s done a gap year abroad or a summer in Europe can verify, train travel on the continent is often a singular experience, as countries from Spain to Sweden can brag about high-speed rail systems that would leave any U.S. passenger train far behind in the dust. But that rite of passage, the overnight train journey, had fallen out of favor in Europe as discount airlines offered cheap tickets with the promise to get passengers to their destinations quickly.
For many reasons, however, including frustrations with flight delays, Greta Thunberg’s clarion call for “flight shaming” and consumers’ growing awareness of their carbon footprint have together started to make train travel en vogue once again.
Meanwhile, several time zones to the west, Amtrak is experiencing a bump upward in passengers as the threat of the global pandemic wanes. And America’s train system sees that trend continuing to a point at which the company announced a new fleet that will include up to 83 new trains, which will run up and down Amtrak’s bustling northeastern corridor.
The $7.3 billion investment, for which Amtrak contracted with Siemens Mobility Inc., will result in a new rail experience as trains that have been running for as long as 40 years will be replaced with a more modern version. Assuming all goes to plan, these train cars, will score more comfortable seating, individual power outlets and USB ports, onboard Wi-Fi, improved lighting along with panoramic windows, larger vestibules and revamped in-dining options. On the environmental side, some of the trains running on New York state’s Empire Service will reportedly include a hybrid battery engine, which promises fewer emissions.
While that’s certainly an upgrade for train enthusiasts here in the U.S., the reality of a country in which 48 of its states are spread across four time zones means overnight train travel for many travelers is still too far of a stretch.
But what if Amtrak could promise a more comfortable experience?
A young company in Europe might offer some ideas.
France-based startup Midnight Trains is promising a far more comfortable service than the seat-turned-into-a-bed experience that’s the prevalent choice for most passengers choosing train travel across Europe. The company’s goal is to launch its first line by 2024, with services branching out as far west as Porto, Rome to the south, Berlin and Copenhagen to the northeast and Edinburgh to the north.
“The experience imposed by commercial airlines is full of stress and discomfort,” says the company on its website. “The speed they sell is an illusion and a 1-hour flight is actually 4 hours long from door to door.”
Therein lies the company’s key selling point – along with the fact train travel has much less of an impact on the environment compared to travel by plane.
What Midnight Trains is also promising is more than a place to crash on the rails while reaching the next destination. For travelers, the journeys on these trips will feel like a stay within a hotel, with access to a restaurant and even a bar, with additional services accessible through a smartphone app.
Amtrak does have sleeper cars on its long-haul routes, but reviews are all over the map. The Points Guy mentioned several pros but also expressed disappointment with the food and service. One reviewer on Trip Advisor was overall effusive about the experience, but added “If you don't sleep well bouncing a little, might not be for you.”
Could a “rolling boutique hotel” experience work here in the U.S.? Amtrak does not have to necessarily mimic the plan Midnight Trains has in store for its upcoming service. But between younger generations wanting to try the latest, great trend and older generations seeking to relive their twenty-something experience enjoying train travel across Europe but with a 2020s twist, Amtrak has an opportunity to boost ridership while capitalizing on travelers’ growing disenchantment with the hassles of flying.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.