You might expect Europe’s 2023 train schedules to debut on 1 January 2023. They don’t. The new timetables kick in on 11 December this year, bringing myriad new travel opportunities for the year ahead. Highlights include Genoa and Dresden both securing new international night sleeper services, a new daily train between Poland and Lithuania and improved links between Oslo and Stockholm.
Night trains have been in the spotlight this past year or two. A collective determination to curb flying has driven demand for overnight trains, but there’s another key factor. The pandemic encouraged us all to rethink how we value personal space, and suddenly the possibility of a comfortable overnight journey in a private compartment holds special appeal, be it a solo or twin-occupancy sleeper or a couchette compartment for a whole family.
Nightjet from Stuttgart to Venice and Rijeka
The Nightjet service also takes in Venice. Photograph: Seng Chye Teo/Getty Images
Stuttgart used to be a major hub for European night trains: 50 years ago it was served by the Orient Express. The south-west German city slipped from the overnight schedules but has returned in grand style with a new daily night train departure at 8.29pm, which will carry sleeping cars to Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Ljubljana and Zagreb. The roll call of enticing destinations is augmented by a through sleeping car to Rijeka over Christmas and Easterand then again from mid-May to early October 2023. Stuttgart to Rijeka takes just under 15 hours, culminating in a wonderful ride through the Istrian hills before a steep drop to the Kvarner Gulf. An overnight journey with crisp white sheets in sleeping car comfort starts at about £73 for Vienna, Venice or Budapest and slightly more to stations in Slovenia or Croatia. With such good connections from London via Brussels or Paris to Stuttgart, travellers from the UK can use the 8.29pm from Stuttgart as a gateway to adventures around the Adriatic in summer 2023.
This month has also seen a new overnight train from Prague and Dresden to Basel. The train continues beyond Basel to Zürich, giving travellers from the Czech capital the choice of two completely different overnight routes to Zürich – the traditional one via Linz, traversing Liechtenstein by dead of night, and the new service via Saxony. For travellers from London, this service offers a credible new route to Dresden and Prague, travelling via Paris to Karlsruhe where the overnight train to Prague leaves at 11.07pm. The Dresden arrival is at 7.05am and Prague at 9.38am.
Book it: The night sleeper services will in time all be bookable from Nightjet, though some are not yet available. A good alternative for overnight trains, and indeed many other European trains, is Rail Europe. For the new night train from Prague to south-west Germany and Switzerland via Saxony, the cheapest fares may be from Czech Railways
Ligurian links, Italy
Manarola, Cinque Terre. Photograph: Alamy
Austria’s national rail operator, ÖBB, announced months ago that it would run trains to Liguria from late 2022, and everyone assumed this just meant Genoa. But it sprung a last-minute surprise in November, with news that the Nightjet from Munich will continue beyond Genoa, serving the Cinque Terre coast en route to its final destination at La Spezia. The new route launched on 11 December. It offers a chance to have an early dinner in Munich, then board a comfortable overnight train and alight next morning in Rapello at 10.14am or Levanto at 10.46am.
With such civilised timings, the route will surely attract travellers heading to Tuscany. The existing night train from Munich arrives in Florence at 6.18am, which is far too early for most travellers. How much nicer it will be to enjoy a gentle rail cruise along the Ligurian coast, alighting from the Nightjet at 11.10am in La Spezia, which has good connections to Pisa and other Tuscan cities.
The new service from Munich to Liguria is complemented by a similar offering from Vienna, leaving the Austrian capital at 7.18pm for an evening journey over the remarkable Semmering Railway. The carriages from Munich and Vienna are united in the wee small hours at Villach in Carinthia, from where the train continues its journey south into Italy, stopping in Milan and Pavia en route to Genoa and the coast. One-way fares from Munich or Vienna to any destination in Liguria start at €30 for an austere overnight journey in a seat, but the trip in a couchette costs from €50 and sleeping car accommodation from €70.
Bordeaux to the Black Forest
Bordeaux has gained a direct train to Freiburg, in south-west Germany. Photograph: Mehdi33300/Alamy
In France, the headline rail news this month has, as in the UK, been all about strikes, but national operator SNCF is sneaking some extra long-distance trains into the 2023 schedules. There are extra TGVs between Paris and the south-west German city of Freiburg. No big surprise there, but a wholly new French destination will appear on the departure boards at Freiburg on 17 December, with the launch of a weekly service to Bordeaux. From Germany’s Black Forest region to Bordeaux in under eight hours would have been impossible a generation ago. It may be a route for wine lovers, but that’s not what’s driving demand; it is, rather, a theme park just north of Freiburg which is very popular with French visitors. It now has a dedicated station called Ringsheim/Europa-Park, where from mid-December you’ll be able to catch not just a weekly train to Bordeaux but also a direct TGV to Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy, for Disneyland Paris. That itinerary will surely appeal to those keen to sample Europe’s two leading theme parks in a single trip. One-way fares from Freiburg or Ringsheim to Bordeaux start at €59.
Book it: through SNCF or Rail Europe
The Festival of Light in Vilnius in January this year. The city has been newly linked to Warsaw and Kraków. Photograph: AP
Last spring, transport activists appealed to European authorities about the complete absence of cross-border rail services into Lithuania at a time when Kaunas was in the limelight as a European capital of culture. Happily, the Polish and Lithuanian authorities responded by introducing, on 1 July, a twice-weekly local service from Białystok to Kaunas. Now, that service is being upgraded to Intercity status, with daily departures from Kraków and Warsaw to Lithuania.
The train leaves Kraków at 4.01am, when sensible travellers should really still be asleep. The Warsaw departure is at 7.35am, giving late-afternoon arrivals in Kaunas and Vilnius. One curiosity of the new service is that an easy cross-platform change of train is necessary at Mockava, a small station just inside Lithuania, where passengers switch from the Polish train to a Lithuanian one. It’s a guaranteed connection and there are through fares. A one-way ticket for the nine-hour journey from Warsaw to Vilnius starts at 120 złoty (about £22).
Book it: the new direct trains from Warsaw to Lithuania can be booked with PKP Intercity
Oslo (pictured) to Stockholm services have been upgraded. Photograph: Leonid Andronov/Getty Images
As I discovered when travelling from Norway to Sweden in the autumn, rail connections between the two countries are woeful. But a welcome upgrade to services on the Oslo-Stockholm route kicked off on 11 December. The number of direct trains has increased to five a day and comfortable, modern SJ3000 trains debut on the route. Journey times are trimmed, with the fastest services now taking just over five hours. One-way fares start at SEK385 Swedish kroner (£30).
Book it: the best option for trains between Stockholm and Oslo is SJ Swedish Railways
… and losers
Timetable changes are not always good news. Trains axed from 11 December included the once-daily direct trains from Dresden to Vienna, Marseille to Madrid and Lyon to Barcelona.
Nicky Gardner is a Berlin-based writer. The 17th edition of her book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide is available from the Guardian Bookshop. She is co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine.