Sleeper trains from St Pancras?

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  • continentalclub

    The fundamental flaw in the seat/bed concept, I’d have thought, is that while it may theoretically increase the possible day-long usability of the carriages, the over night capacity would be crucified – even if you downgraded the existing service levels by removing the generally-present washing facilities.

    The already-limited profitability of overnight services depends on being able to get up to 6 berths in a standard height cabin (Artesia), stacked three high. There is no possible way that 6 Club World seats, with servicing space, would fit into the same footprint. In which case, as mjxguerra says above, you’d have to go double-decker – but you’d still get more passengers in on tiered bunks rather than converter seats.

    This reality is probably what has lead Lufthansa to float the idea of bunks in Economy; the space utilisation is far superior to seat beds.

    And, from a comfort point-of-view (especially when sharing a cabin with strangers) the psychological effect of having bunks promotes the idea that when you’re in there, you should be sleeping. Fit converter seats and while some are trying to sleep (on what would have to be an inferior surface compared to a mattressed bunk), your immediate seat-mate is still up and about, eating, drinking, viewing and ballyhooing. Carriage lighting, if it is a thoroughfare, would have to be stonger than exisiting cabin nightlights, too.

    Fundamentally though, whilst there may be examples of individual routes where the idea of a sleeper may seem to make sense, the reality is that even on trunk services, the commerciality of the proposition is questionable.

    Taking the 5th October as an example, the cheapest one-way ticket in a shared four berth cabin on the Elipsos Trenhotel from Paris to Barcelona is £139. The journey takes 11h43m and that’s about as far ahead as you may book thanks to the three month reservations horizon.

    easyJet fly four times a day, taking 1h45m, for a maximum of £56.70 including a bag and all fees.

    The latter therefore makes possible a day trip, avoiding any overnight costs and the need to share a sleeping cabin with strangers.

    The former, meanwhile, appeals to InterRailers who can indeed amortise the cost of the sleeper reservation against the saving of an overnight in an expensive capital city, those who are (in general, though not always, as the Zurich example might show) not time-poor and those who are afraid of flying.

    The rest, who are far more abundant and generally higher-spending, have been voting with their feet for 50 years and flying to minimise overnights away from home.

    That said, I’m still an avowed sleeper fan – for leisure – and have no qualms whatsoever about the commercial prospects of long-distance touring train travel. Indeed, I’m quite sure that there is much more of a market to be exploited in the UK, never mind Europe.

    Frequent sleepers targetted at the business market though? Only bookable three months out? Ten times the flying time? Often running horrendously late (the Florence-Paris regularly rolls in 2 hours behind time)? Sharing cabins? Cold, windy platforms? Lugging your own baggage and being responsible for its safety? I’m not spotting the opportunity there!


    There are fundamental flaws in whatever method is or could be deployed. In the case of using Club World type seats, you would get more in than you would do in a carriage of individual compartments on a first class basis, probably equal on a standard class basis. There would be no need to “stack” and you would need to have overhead locker space for carry on luggage.

    As your example shows there is really no contest on a nearly 12 hour train journey at £139 as opposed to around two hours for £56, unless you have a fear of flying or can’t fly.

    As I said before, no one will try it at present but there will probably come a time when the fare in your example will turn the other way due to increased fuel prices. Then you have a halfway house between a private berth and seated accomodation.


    Your final point there is salient, NTarrant, as there must surely come a point in the next 50 years when fuel cost does indeed price aviation out of certain markets.

    That seems to me to be the most compelling reason for early investment in rail infrastructure which has ever-lengthening lead times – particularly in the UK. I’m not an advocate of UK high speed rail though; with (if memory serves) an already greater than 80% rail market share Manchester-London with Virgin, and an existing fastest 2h37m journey time Newcastle-London with East Coast, judicious investment in the existing infrastructure would deliver solutions for the future which would almost certainly meet market and environmental demads.

    Scandalous overcrowding on hideous Cross Country Voyagers and Super Voyagers and on three-carriage (but otherwise excellent Siemens Desiro) Transpennine services, unreliable overhead wiring on ECML and East Anglian routes, byzantine booking systems and advance purchase horizons, and recomissioning of diversionary and freight-only routes to clear express paths must surely be the priority – not HS2 and Eurosnoozeliners.

    The recent Great Western announcement seems like a step in the right direction.

    I’d commend to BT readers the book ‘Eleven Minutes Late’ by Matthew Engel, who argues therein that one of the strengths of the British ‘web’ of competing privately-established rail lines, pre-modernisation, was the ‘resistance’ of the network during WWII. He compares it to the largely militarily-planned trunk routes of Europe, which were comparatively easy to compromise with little bombing. In Blighty, there was always a cunning way around a damaged line.

    Perhaps now is the time to identify the strength of that type of network in the war against rising oil prices, and ever-increasing passenger numbers?


    I wwould compare the Acela Express between Boston and NYC and the Eurostar between London and Paris. When the weather gets bad in NYC, the train is reliable (now the brakes are fixed) the planes are not. In contrast when the weather gets bad in UK or France both services go to hell in a hand basket. The infrastructure is affected by drifts and icing and the trains (though lesser the Hitachis) were stopped by the wrong sort of snow.
    I think the infrastructure and the rolling stock should be hardened to make the train the reliable means of getting there.From that perspective together with enhanced accessability from regional stations, an enhanced service model might make sense.
    My personal belief is the sleeper economic model is from a past generation and for many time is now money and as a consequence there is less demand to pay more to take longer, however much more pleasant it is until you reach the niche market such as the VSOE. Maybe for a corporation running a large event hiring such a train to use the journey as part of the event might make sense but this is really niche and makes the economic modeling and pricing a tad uncompetitive.


    Sleeper trains were indeed to be part of the Channel Tunnel with the day services being ‘Euorostar’ and the sleeper trains ‘Night Star’ with routes not only from London but from Scotland and Northern England. A fleet of carriages was built in 1992 but by 1999 the scheme had been abandoned due to rising costs and competition from the newly developing low cost airlines.

    The sleeping cars were sold off and some are, I believe, still running with Via Canada, the Canadian rail operators.

    Mjxguerra’s post (20/06/10 @11:40) interestingly explains the security and operational problems that would hinder such a service. I am quite sure if these problems could be overcome there would be sufficient demand. Some of us are old enough to remember when one could board the ‘Night Ferry’ Wagon Lit sleeper at Victoria and, providing one was a sound sleeper, waken up in Paris. Mind you, if not a sound sleeper it was a tiring, but interesting, journey as the carriage was shunted on and off a rail ferry for the channel crossing!


    I quite agree CC regarding HS2, the money would be better spent on improvements to the existing nework and re-opening routes which have been severed that would ease congestion and create better journeys. As well as lengthing trains and improved signalling for capacity.

    The weather argument is a bit of a red herring, there is this elf and safety culture which stops people trying to run a service (hence the silly announcements about slipping up). There are more journeys than 20 years ago and more frequent. You never hear of problems with the third rail back in the 30’s and 40’s. The hard fact is that we are not geared up for excessive weather and there has to be the balance between regular and occasional occurneces


    NTarrant –

    You may be right about fuel prices, but in my opinion they will only rise so high, and then the industry will switch to alternate fuel sources, as are already being tested now. with increases in technology, and the will to change, I dont think it will be to long before there is a radical shift. I give it 15-20 years, and I can see a pilotless aircraft being flown on 100% alternate fuels.

    If as you say things just stay the same with oil prices rising higher and higher, then aviation is finshed in less than 20 years. there is to much money at stake for that to be allowed to happen.


    I believe in HS Rail but I worry about the HS2 UK implementation. Firstly I do not understnad why they do not use the Paddington Birmingham route as a basis and redevelop? Much lower cost and lower environmental impact (though there will be areas that need some rerouting) also connects to LHR (but not into Euston but heh we have corssrail!.
    Secondly linking Birmingham to the rest of the world is very parochial. The french built the track to lyons as clearly a first step to Cote Dazure and Provence. HS2 should be London to Scotland from the outset with stops on certain services at Birmingham, Machester, Leeds, Newcastle etc etc.


    The research I undertook (it seems many years ago now) was based on the idea that comparing air travel with overnight rail was to look at the total journey experience. Typically city to city an air traveller has to travel out to an airport (with some time and cost), hang around in the airport to go through the various security checks and boarding pass queues and deliver up their stored luggage (possibly paying extra for the service) before being shoe-horned into a potential flying bomb for a relatively short duration flight. At the other end there will be the usual passport checks, luggage reclamation (for those with stored luggage) before finding transport into the city of their choice. For someone wishing to arrive for an early meeting in a distant city the choice is often an unearthly departure from home or a hotel close to the airport. So to compare a 2 hr flight with a 10-12hr train journey is to hide much of the time (and cost) of getting to and from airports, as well as the limit on the earliest flights.

    The train service used in the research was based on the double-deck CityNightLine cars, fixed in 100m or 200m high-speed multiple units to run in multiple rakes to various destinations, splitting and coupling as need be to reduce the number of route paths to be purchased. The routes chosen were based on popular destinations (from London) which were about a night’s sleep away – that is 7-12hrs total journey time. One of the benefits of railways is that can pick up and set down passengers along a route.

    It was true that most of the people replying to the questionairre wanted to know the potential cost of the rail service, and at the time (~2005) we were working on around £100 for a single journey of up to 800km. The service still showed a great deal of support, simply because the costs were comparable with most flights of the same distance, based on the city centre to city centre costings. Additionally attractive was the fact that you could have an early arrival without the pain and (physical) cost of very early starts. Those who replied and showed an environmental interest were attracted by the fact that per passenger mile a plane uses around 10 times more energy than a train. Economically, during times when avaiation fuel is ever more expensive and with the introduction of carbon taxes the economic reasons for taking the train become stronger.

    However, all this depended on delivering a reliable, comfortable and cost-effective service. It was always a joke that when conducting this research we wished that the Channel Tunnel had connected with any other country except France, as that is where we came against the greatest difficulty politically, and where the rail unions are most resistant to any change (and strike more than anyone else).

    In the end, it was the UK government that provided the least flexibilty. We had tackled all the technical challenges with the rolling stock, including traction, signalling, infrastructure limitations etc. We also seem to make the numbers work (though we were dealing with a good deal of soft data). But it was the security arrangements that UK authorities were unwilling to change. By insisting that every passenger using the service towards the UK was to have a passport check and security scan, and be held in a secure waiting area before boarding the train meant that every station we wished to serve in Europe (and potentially it could have been any station – if our charter service was to have gone ahead) would have to have built all the paraphenalia that is found at St Pancras, Bruxelles, Paris Nord, Avignon and Bourg St Maurice, including X-ray scanners, passport booths, secure platforms, even little jails, to comply with the Eurostar agreement.

    At that point we gave up. Bar the UK security restrictions we felt it could have been a wonderful, viable service. We tried introducing the idea that security and passport checks could be carried out on the train prior to arriving at the Channel Tunnel entrance (as it is this strategic piece of infrastructure that is ostensibly being protected from rogue train travellers, as well as being the border), but that was discounted as ‘not being the same as’ the current security arrangements. We investigated near future passive and active scanning devices, some of which could have been incorporated into the train doors, but again, not being a proven technology was discounted. Depressing, but that is where we are. Perhaps I will try again, but right now the economic situation means that as a sustainabilty and engineering consultant I am getting no work, and with a family to support it is not easy to lobby the individuals that could make a difference.


    One of the many problems with HS here in the UK, RichHI1 is that the population centres are simply too close together to make HS incrementally swifter than traditional rail. This is not the case in France or Germany, where population densities are far lower and cities generally much more distributed.

    If there’s a spatial, political and economic imperative to developing UK cities outside of the South East, then linking some of them only to London, and by-passing other intermediate ones, has to be self-defeating and doomed to failure – if not commercially then socially and politically.

    An HS route from Newcastle to London would have to call at least at Leeds and Birmingham to ensure loads; yet the very implications of doing so would render the route circuitous and the overall journey time barely better than the fastest that could be achieved with upgraded rolling stock, signalling, pathing and segregation of freight services on the existing East Coast Mainline – at a mere fraction of the cost, planning requirements and environmental/landscape impact.

    Even Edinburgh could be under 3 hours away from London on traditional rail, especially with the reopening of a cross-border route by-passing Berwick and linking Newcastle more directly.

    However, the real issues in UK rail capacity are in general between UK regional cities, not between them and London. A third route has just had to be relaid between Edinburgh and Glasgow (with the support of the reasonably-enlightened in this regard Scottish parliament); Leeds to Manchester is literally groaning at the doors for more rolling stock. Newcastle to Birmingham festers with horrid, overcrowded, smelly, under-equipped, woefully tiny (in dimension and number of carriages) Voyagers and Super Voyagers. These are the priorities, not apparent vanities like HS2.

    The above all relates to point-to-point travel however; as long as Heathrow is neglected from the mainline network, whether traditional or HS, it will be exceptionally difficult to encourage modal shift when the connection from air to rail and vv is so costly and time-consuming. This is particularly the case for inbound passengers who are less conversant with UK rail. When these inbound passengers are also investors, anything which discourages them from easy connections to the regions once again increases the pressure on the South East to supply the demand that might otherwise connect easily by air to Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Even Manchester becomes aviation-relevant again for longhaul connections.


    Echoing CC’s take wrt HS2 but with an additional perspective..

    the IAE (Institute of Economic Affairs) think tank director’s comment that it is a political vanity project … “similar to Concorde” , is a slight on one of the greatest technological achievements of its day though.


    continental club I agree, I think secondary and disused lines could be recycled and hardened in an upgraded fashion to provided higher speeds 140-160 mph more along the German model with tilting ICE T rather than the French or Japanese models.
    Also I would link LHR into rail communication as in AMS or FRA as a matter of urgency.
    Finally I would make accelerating infrastructure a priority (private public partnership) to make a very reliable quality choice for transport not the current second choice option. (Japan, Germany, Switzerland all do this – even Dutch Railways (NS) whom the Dutch berate, offers a more reliable and pleasant service.
    I guess it comes down to aim lower but deliver in full rather than the APTE approach of aiming for the stars and then cutting the funding just before delivery.


    Fascinating insight mjxguerra – we’re lucky to have you posting here!

    Can I ask perhaps an over-simplified question, however?

    That is, particularly if the research identifies that security strictures, including immigration formalities, are some of the most fundamental frustrations of the modern-day air passenger, then why should international rail passengers not be subject to the same scrutiny; particularly when the service transits a sub-sea tunnel?

    It seems to me that there could be just as many (if not more) ways to create havoc with a security-compromised train as there have proven to be with a similarly-targetted aircraft.

    Accordingly, I personally don’t see why trains using the tunnel shouldn’t be as sensitive as all aviation; it would seem that the incremental benefits of rail over shorthaul aviation, where security is concerned, are more obvious, balanced and sustainable when the routes are surface-only.


    The recent information gathered from Al Qaeda shows that US trains were the next attempted terrorist target and we have seen attrocities in Spain, Russia and other stations. Surely security on trains needs hardening not loosening in these unfortunate times.


    Interesting link there too, CallMeIshmael – not a report that I’d hitherto seen.

    A shame that the IEA used Concorde and Dome analogies though; both projects that latterly became extremely popular with the general public and the first of which genuinely pioneered new technologies and laid the foundations for a business which is now outselling Boeing from a standing start 30 years ago. Bringing Concorde and the O2 into the fray really won’t help their position – even though I tend to agree with it.

    The most interesting comment contained therein seems to be from the DfT:

    A DfT spokesman said: “The alternative, according to the IEA, would be for the government to stop investing in the railways, close many of the railway lines that currently exist and sit on its hands as ticket prices get higher, performance deteriorates and crowding increases.

    – which, by any objective measure and with the exception of Great Western and peripheral tinkering, is exactly what the government is doing, while diverting attention away on to HS2.

    Sir Humphrey would be proud.

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