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Travel: What are the best night train routes to and from Switzerland?

Night trains are back in favour in Europe but where can you get to overnight if you live in Switzerland? Here's a run through of your best options if you're looking for an adventure.

If you are thinking of getting away, why not try a night train from Switzerland? Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash
If you are thinking of getting away, why not try a night train from Switzerland? Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash

Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) now hosts 11 overnight routes, including a new destination in a new direction – Amsterdam. 

The daily Nightjet service from Zurich to Amsterdam via Basel has been up and running since December. The journey takes 11 hours and 15 minutes, leaving Zurich at 10pm and arriving in Amsterdam at 9.15am with no changes. 

On the way back, the train leaves Amsterdam at 8.30pm and arrives in Basel SBB at 6.30am, travelling on to arrive in Zurich at the slightly more civilised hour of 8.05am. 

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated new routes to Barcelona and Rome won’t be operational until 2024 at the earliest. The Barcelona route from Zurich will go via Bern, Lausanne and Geneva. 

The SBB night train destinations are offered in collaboration with the Austrian rail company ÖBB and other partner companies. Hamburg, Berlin, Hannover, Vienna, Graz, Prague, Budapest, Ljubljana and Zagreb have been on the timetable for a few years. Most of these journeys take 10 to 12 hours. 

Sleeping options

Sonya Schwaller from Fribourg recently travelled on the Zurich to Vienna night train, sleeping in a six-person compartment. She and her husband were on their way to take part in a triathlon in Bratislava. They joined the train just over the Swiss-Austrian border in Feldkirch so that they could load their car on board too.  

The Schwallers took the cheaper ‘couchette’ (Liegewagen) option, which has four or six bunks and shared toilets outside in the carriage. It was their third trip by night train so they knew what to expect. 

This map is from SBB . You can see it in ore details here: https://www.sbb.ch/en/leisure-holidays/trains-trips/night-train.html

“The pillows weren’t great but we got a good blanket. Each bunk has a light so you can still read when others are asleep. It’s very quiet – nobody moving around. I slept well and I enjoyed it. They brought us coffee, bread rolls and jam in the morning.”

There is also a ‘ladies-only compartment’ in the couchette class for women travelling alone, which you have to select when booking. The most comfortable way to travel is the ‘sleeper cabin’ (Schlafwagen). There are standard and deluxe options available in this category with single, double and triple-bed compartments. 

Standard sleeper compartments come with a small handbasin, while the deluxe compartments have their own shower and toilet and towels. The budget option would be to travel in reclining seats in the ‘seating carriage’ (Sitzwagen).  

Booking

Regular prices range from CHF 116 one way to Prague and CHF219 to Amsterdam for a bunk in a three-person sleeper compartment. Considerably cheaper tickets (Sparbillet / Billet dégriffé / Supersaver) can be found when booking well in advance. 

Not all international connections can be booked through the SBB app or the Webshop. The same applies to finding the best prices.

For the moment, SBB recommends that clients purchase international tickets at staffed travel centres or by phone (SBB Contact Center 0848 44 66 88 (CHF 0.08/Min). It’s possible to book an appointment in advance online. For more info on booking international tickets, see the SBB FAQ

Some of the most popular routes like Zurich-Vienna and Zurich-Berlin are in demand in the busiest travel months of May to September. Early booking is recommended. 

A turnaround

The next plan, in cooperation with ÖBB, Deutsche Bahn and the Czech Railways, is for SBB to run the Zurich night train to Prague through Germany, taking in the destinations Leipzig and Dresden. This should be ready to roll by December 2022. 

European railway companies see great potential in night trains and have their eye on expansion. “We are currently noticing a renaissance and strongly growing demand,” an SBB spokesman told The Local. 

It’s quite a turnaround. “A few years ago, night trains were deemed to be an obsolete model. We are convinced that the demand will increase more and that night trains will also be successful in the long term in the context of sustainable travel,” he said.

A look inside the SBB sleeping cabin on a night train. Image: SBB

A look inside the SBB sleeping cabin on a night train. Image: SBB

Climate bonus

The climate benefit has become a major selling point of train travel – and night trains are even more environmentally friendly because they travel at slower speeds. On the SBB website and app, the Ecocalculator at the end of the itinerary allows you to see the CO2 savings for your trip. 

A train journey can use at least 30 times less CO2 than plane travel over the same distance, and 20 times less than car travel. 

There are other advantages over road travel, such as avoiding traffic jams and being able to lie down and close your eyes. There is no trouble with carrying liquids or other banned items. And there is no waiting time or airport transfer when you travel from city centre to city centre. 

Long-distance train travel can be family friendly with children of the right age and temperament. It is possible to book out a four-person or six-person compartment for a group travelling together. 

Sleeping in a moving vehicle may not be everyone’s idea of fun but there are ways to make it work. Comfortable clothes are a must, and potentially ear plugs or an eye mask if you’re a light sleeper.

It’s best to travel light and to have the essential things easily accessible at the top of your bag. And don’t forget to pack some tolerance for your travelling companions. 

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TRAVEL NEWS

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

Borders within Europe's Schengen area are meant to be open but several countries have checks in place but are they legal and will they be forced to scrap them? Claudia Delpero explains the history and what's at stake.

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

The European Court of Justice has recently said that checks introduced by Austria at the borders with Hungary and Slovenia during the refugee crisis of 2015 may not be compatible with EU law.

Austria has broken the rules of the Schengen area, where people can travel freely, by extending temporary controls beyond 6 months without a new “serious threat”.

But Austria is not the only European country having restored internal border checks for more than six months.

Which countries have controls in place and what does the EU Court decision mean for them? 

When can EU countries re-introduce border checks?

The Schengen area, taken from the name of the Luxembourgish town where the convention abolishing EU internal border controls was signed, includes 26 states: the EU countries except for Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania, plus Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members.

The Schengen Borders Code sets the rules on when border controls are permitted. It says that checks can be temporarily restored where there is a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, from the organisation of a major sport event to a terrorist attack such as those seen in Paris in November 2015.

However, these checks should be a “last resort” measure, should be limited to the period “strictly necessary” to respond to the threat and not last more than 6 months.

In exceptional circumstances, if the functioning of the entire Schengen area is at risk, EU governments can recommend that one or more countries reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of two years. The state concerned can then continue to impose checks for another six months if a new threat emerges. 

Which countries keep border checks in place?

Countries reintroducing border controls have to notify the European Commission and other member states providing a reason for their decision. 

Based on the list of notifications, these countries currently have controls in place at least at some of their borders: 

Norway – until 11 November 2022 at ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. These measures have been in place since 2015 due to terrorist threats or the arrival of people seeking international protection and have sometimes extended to all borders.

Austria – until November 2022 11th, since 2015, at land borders with Hungary and with Slovenia due to risks related to terrorism and organised crime and “the situation at the external EU borders”. 

Germany – until November 11th 2022, since November 12th 2021, at the land border with Austria “due to the situation at the external EU borders”.

Sweden – until November 11th 2022, since 2017, can concern all borders due to terrorist and public security threats and “shortcomings” at the EU external borders. 

Denmark – until November 11th 2022, since 2016, can concern all internal borders due to terrorist and organised criminality threats or migration.

France – until October 31st 2022 since 2015, due to terrorist threats and other events, including, since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Estonia – until May 21st 2022, from April 22nd 2022, at the border with Latvia “to facilitate the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”.

Norway, Austria, Germany and France also said they are operating checks on non-EU citizens. 

Can Schengen rules survive?

Despite the exceptional nature of these measures, there have been continuous disruptions to the free movement of people in the Schengen area in the past 15 years. 

Since 2006, there have been 332 notifications of border controls among Schengen countries, with increasing frequency from 2015. In addition, 17 countries unilaterally restored border controls at the start of the pandemic. 

In December 2021, the Commission proposed to reform the system to ensure that border controls remain an exception rather than becoming the norm. 

According to the proposals, countries should consider alternatives to border controls, such as police cooperation and targeted checks in border regions. 

When controls are restored, governments should take measures to limit their impacts on border areas, especially on the almost 1.7 million people who live in a Schengen state but work in another, and on the internal market, especially guaranteeing the transit of “essential” goods. 

Countries could also conclude bilateral agreements among themselves for the readmission of people crossing frontiers irregularly, the Commission suggested. 

If border controls have been in place for 6 months, any notification on their extension should include a risk assessment, and if restrictions are in place for 18 months, the Commission will have to evaluate their necessity. Temporary border controls should not exceed 2 years “unless for very specific circumstances,” the Commission added. 

At a press conference on April 27th, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU Court ruling about Austria is in line with these proposals.

“What the court says is that member states have to comply with the time limit that is in the current legislation. Of course we can propose another time limit in the legislation… and the court also says that it’s necessary for member states, if they would like to prolong [the border controls] to really do the risk assessment on whether it’s really necessary… and that’s exactly what’s in our proposal on the Schengen Border Code.”

Criticism from organisations representing migrants

It is now for the European Parliament and EU Council to discuss and adopt the new rules.

A group of migration organisations, including Caritas Europe, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have raised concerns and called on the EU institutions to modify the Commission proposals.

In particular, they said, the “discretionary nature” of controls in border regions risk to “disproportionately target racialised communities” and “practically legitimise ethnic and racial profiling and expose people to institutional and police abuse.”

Research from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2021, the groups noted, shows that people from an ‘ethnic minority, Muslim, or not heterosexual’ are disproportionately affected by police stops.

The organisations also criticize the definition of people crossing borders irregularly as a threat and a new procedure to “transfer people apprehended… in the vicinity of the border area” to the authorities of the country where it is assumed they came from without any individual assessment. 

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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