Sunday, February 25, 2024
Home Travel Reviewing the new Nightjet train from Vienna to Hamburg

Reviewing the new Nightjet train from Vienna to Hamburg

by Staff

You know the phrase, “There’s a German word for that”? I recently discovered that the German word for a train enthusiast is the adorable-sounding pufferküsser, literally someone who kisses the railway buffers.

I was told this by a fellow passenger on the new Nightjet sleeper train connecting Vienna to Hamburg as we settled into our bunks and waited for the train to get rolling. The new service, run by the Austrian rail company ÖBB, is a major update on the old generation Nightjet sleeper trains and has thrilled pufferküsser all over Europe. I was there to try out the new “mini cabins” — a sleeping design similar to Japan’s capsule hotels, in which you have your own, lockable, private space and don’t have to share a cabin with strangers.

Train nerds from around Europe converged on Vienna during the first week of the train’s launch in December. I met a British man who had traveled across the continent expressly to try out the new service, a Ukrainian who worked for his country’s state railway and an ÖBB employee checking out the swanky new train for himself. If all of that buzz sounds a bit unwarranted, it’s not: The new flock of night trains (another one between Paris and Berlin was inaugurated on the same day) is redrawing Europe’s travel map and responding to a surge in demand for train travel. Night trains haven’t seen an update like this for decades, and this new design is particularly special because of the variety of sleeping options on board. More new Nightjet trains are expected to run in Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

“That’s the amazing thing about this train,” fellow passenger and train aficionado Stefan Stopko, told me breathlessly. “It was designed to be a night train, from the floor up. It wasn’t just converted from a normal train.”

Here’s what I learned on my first journey.

When I travel, I often choose the cheapest option. In the past, that’s meant hitchhiking, couchsurfing, and sleeping in cramped, six-berth sleeping cabins on night trains with snoring strangers. While no one wants to endure an overnight journey with someone whose snoring rivals in volume the train’s juddering over the tracks, it’s good to make connections, however fleeting, when you’re traveling alone. So I wondered if the new mini cabins would strip the sociability from solo traveling.

I was lucky and had some great people in my carriage, but the mini cabins are a significant innovation, particularly for solo female travelers who may want the privacy and security of a lockable door.

Prices go up the closer to the date you are, but if you book far in advance, you can get a mini cabin for about $70. You also have the option of a couchette cabin for four people (from $70) and a bed in a “comfort compartment” for two people, including an en suite toilet (from about $125). Compartments with en suite showers cost a bit more, as does booking out a whole compartment yourself. There is also one wheelchair-accessible compartment, with an accompanying accessible toilet. The cheapest option is the seating car (about $44); this is mainly for people who are not taking the full trip.

Unfortunately, the rollout didn’t go as hoped. It’s normal for just-launched train services to have teething problems, but the new Nightjet had quite the litany of issues.

The afternoon of my departure, a few days after the train’s inaugural journey on Dec. 10, I was informed by text and email that the train had been canceled. It turns out that it was just a technical error, but I only found that out after I’d already rebooked onto the service the following day.

When I went to Vienna’s main station anyway that evening, I waited on the cold platform with the other passengers, watching a delay creep up from 20 minutes to 40 to over an hour and a half. Eventually, the train did end up being canceled, and after a night’s stay in a hotel (courtesy of ÖBB), I made my way back to the station the next evening for a second try. There was a similar delay that evening too, and we ended up waiting for more than two hours for the train to arrive.

What to expect in your cabin

When the train did miraculously chug into the station after 10 p.m., all of the passengers bustled on board, curious to explore the new facilities.

“Mini cabin” is a more palatable euphemism for what is essentially a spacious casket. If you’re tall, not particularly limber or don’t want to feel like you’re being buried before your time has come, you might prefer the couchette or comfort options. Saying that, I enjoyed the adventurous feel of it, and it’s much more luxurious compared to the old generation sleeper trains. There’s even space to sit up, which isn’t the case in a six-berth room. You’re provided with water, a sheet that’s closed at one end like a sleeping bag, a pillow and a blanket.

In terms of technology, the cabin comes with a European-style pin plug and USB charging ports as well as a wireless charging station, which worked only intermittently. One of the Nightjet’s best new features is the WiFi, which worked perfectly throughout the journey. There’s a small table that folds down (and doubles as a mirror when against the wall) and a control panel, which takes a bit of getting used to — for example, the coffee symbol does not order you a hot beverage, but a train manager, who arrives at your cabin looking polite but confused. A peculiar gimmick is the mood lighting: You can change the color of your own personal boudoir, whirling between brothel red to a cool blue to a tangy violet.

Storage space in the mini cabins is tight. Each mini cabin has a small shoe locker, in which you can only really fit sneakers, or squish a pair of boots in. The luggage locker is only big enough for a small suitcase or a backpack. Everything is lockable. You’re given a key card like in a hotel, and can close off your cabin with a sliding door that locks automatically as soon as it’s closed.

But this isn’t always convenient. The cabin doors had a habit of sliding shut as the train rounded a corner, and that happened to me during the journey, locking all of my belongings — and my key card — inside. The moral of the story? Always try to make friends with the people around you: I was able to ask the nice German guy in the mini cabin next to mine to crawl around and open my door from the inside.

And yes, that means that each cabin is connected to the one next door. In this new design, you are actually sleeping closer to your bunk mate than you do in a normal sleeper. Crucially, however, the small sliding door at the head end of the cabin can be locked from either side.

What the journey was like

There is something magical about night trains, chuntering along railways stretching hundreds of kilometers and seeing different landscapes roll by. The train makes various stops between Vienna and Hamburg, and rolled into the German border town of Passau around 1 a.m. I was awake because my mini cabin was too cold; there’s no way to adjust temperature, and I was being blasted with cold air conditioning, forcing me to sleep in my jacket. And like in many night trains, there still isn’t much soundproofing for when the train stops in the night and people board or walk past in the corridor.

I looked out through the small porthole-style window next to my head, at a train platform with piles of snow on it, and tried to peer out to the town beyond. I like these moments of quiet solitude in a night train. It’s also somehow accentuated in the capsule: You feel like you’re in a bubble, watching railworkers obliviously walk past you on the platform smoking. The individual window for each cabin helps it to feel less like a coffin, and means you can curl up and watch the countryside skim past, the snowy verges illuminated briefly by the light from the train as it passes.

I fell asleep again at some point because I woke up with a jolt at 8:40 a.m., exactly the time that we should have been arriving if it weren’t for our two-hour delay. Once the attendant sees that you’re awake, they bring you breakfast, which is standard fare; if you’ve been on an ÖBB train before, you know the drill. You have a choice of coffee or tea, served with two plain white bread rolls with jam and butter. It’s good to come prepared with dinner and snacks: There’s no restaurant car and no food menu in the cabin, so breakfast is the only meal served onboard.

So, would I take this train again? Without a doubt. It feels like a huge step up from the old generation sleepers, and I really enjoyed the privacy of the mini cabin during the 12.5-hour journey. That new option will appeal to solo travelers who maybe need a bit of a break from polite chitchat with strangers, as well as female travelers who feel safer having their own lockable space. I can also see it being used by people on business trips looking for a no-frills way to get from A to B without wasting time in airports.

The various problems with the journey will certainly be ironed out as the service settles in, and I firmly believe that night trains are the future of cross-country travel in Europe. Hopefully, innovative new services like this are just the start.

Catherine Bennett is a writer based in Paris.

Leave a Comment

Copyright ©️ All rights reserved. | Tourism Trends