From Moin to Servus by night

Due to a happy confluence of circumstances, I recently had the opportunity to take a sleeper train from Hamburg to Vienna. I don’t often have a reason to travel by sleeper train nor do I often have a reason to visit Vienna, but I had a few days of holiday come up spare, so I decided to combine the two.

Overture

Said sleeper trains are operated by the Austrian federal railways, Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖBB), under their Nightjet brand. The Nightjets have three different travel classes, which are grouped into separate carriages: seating cars, couchette cards, and sleeper cars. Since the most recent timetable change in December 2023, ÖBB have been operating new rolling stock on the lines to and from Hamburg, and one of the notable new features in the new stock is a “mini-cabin” concept in the couchette cars, which has been making the rounds in the travel press and train enthusiast circles. Hitherto, the couchette cars have consisted of a number of shared compartments containing multiple berths, however in the new stock the majority of the shared compartments have been supplanted by separate and individually lockable berths in groups of four. Think of them as bunk beds with walls between them and doors on the end – more on that later.

The main selling point of the mini-cabins is of course increased privacy for solo travellers, as one is no longer obliged to share a compartment with potential strangers. I presume that solo business travellers are a big part of the intended target market, however this conveniently also caters to recreational travellers going alone such as myself. ÖBB will quite happily let you book out an entire compartment if you don’t want to share (or if you’re in a small group with a headcount lower than the capacity of the compartment) – but it’s quite, quite expensive. The pretty price tag is not helped by ÖBB’s introduction of dynamic pricing for the Nightjets at the start of the year, and in spite of the relative novelty of sleeper trains, in all honesty this reduces the attractiveness to me.

As I had a few aforementioned days to fill, I decided to book some tickets in the mini-cabins to get in on the new night train hotness. My previous night train adventures have thus far been limited to that one time on a Caledonian Sleeper from London to Edinburgh on the way home after going camping, and that one time on an ÖBB Nightjet from Vienna to Berlin on the way home after a conference. Since visiting Vienna for that conference I’ve had some lingering interest in visiting again in a more self-directed manner – which was a convenient pretense to spend a few days wandering around on trains overnight.

Act 1

The starting block of this little adventure is Hamburg-Altona station, which is east of Hamburg Central station. I hadn’t been to Hamburg before, so I arrived with plenty of time to spare – both in order to orient myself at the station and to get some pictures of the train for the photo album

My immediate first impression upon boarding was that the gangway in the couchette car with the mini-cabins is a little tight, especially if you have luggage. On second thought, this is not exactly surprising, as this is a sleeper train and all the beds are oriented laterally.

As previously mentioned, the mini-cabins are clustered in groups of four, arranged in two levels – two cabins over two cabins. Storage lockers are provided for shoes and general luggage, respectively, between the left and right cabin pairs, and act as walls between the cabins. The front panel is inset from the gangway to provide a little more space for manoeuvring. Steps are mounted on the front of the lockers for access to the upper cabins on each side, and each cabin is accessible through an opening starting where the storage locker front panel meets the cabin and extends to the wall parallel with the gangway. The opening has a horizontal shutter door, which in theory locks shut when fully closed – and more on that in a bit.

The cabin doors have a mechanical release on the inside, but accessing the storage lockers or unlocking the door from the outside uses an RFID key card and an reader mounted on the outside of the cabin. The key card is provided in a small holder mounted on the inside of the wall with the gangway, which is not particularly visible when standing around in the gangway with a suitcase and wondering how to open the storage locker. This confused me and a few other passengers until someone boarding at Hamburg Central pointed it out to us.

After departing Hamburg-Altona, the train stops at two further long-distance stations in the city, Hamburg Central and Hamburg-Harburg, from which the train departed with a slight delay. At this point I am obliged to disabuse my readers of any preconceptions they might have about Germany running trains on time – if you want punctual trains, you’ll have more luck in Austria, or better yet Switzerland. In Germany, delayed trains are a fact of life. I was told that overnight trains generally have a lot of buffer time built into their schedules, however in practice it seems like if you make a German train schedule delay-proof, the universe will come up with a better, bigger (though not necessarily German) train delay.

As the collective luggage was being stowed when other passengers boarded in the Hamburg stations, I found that the general-purpose storage locker is not particularly big. I could comfortably fit my half-full rucksack in there, but there wasn’t much additional space. I think I heard the staff telling other passengers with larger suitcases that there was more space available in luggage racks in the seating cars, but I didn’t pay enough attention to hear the details.

A limited breakfast is provided in the couchette cars, so after the train settled post-Hamburg the train staff came round and took breakfast orders. I declined the breakfast, as I was travelling with a half-face respirator mask as an anti-pandemic paranoia measure to avoid sharing too much unfiltered air with other passengers.

My cabin on this train was one of the upper cabins, so much climbing up and down of the steps to get in and out ensued. On the far end of each cabin there is a small window with a retractable blind, and a control panel for operating the cabin lights. The controls are touch-sensitive without tactile feedback, but with auditory feedback. This means that when the passenger in the neighbouring cabin is adjusting their lights there is an array of beeps which is audible from next door. This auditory background radiation is added to by the electronic release for the cabin door and the storage lockers triggered by the key card reader, as this also makes a beep of its own.

This may be stating the obvious, but as the mini-cabins are each only half the overall height of the carriage and pinned between a storage locker and another cabin, there are some limitations on how freely you can move around inside. Starting with one’s head at the far end by the window, some shuffling is required to orient oneself so that one can reach the mechanical release and open the shutters which are otherwise at one’s feet. For more elastic younger people this is not a problem, but would be prohibitive for people with reduced mobility.

Speaking of cabin doors, I noticed fairly early on in the evening that the shutters on my cabin didn’t lock properly. When I closed them all the way, the lock did not engage properly. This meant that when the train went around a sufficiently tight and long enough turn the door would open by itself under the force of inertia.

I’ll write that again in a separate paragraph in bold typeface for folks in the back: the door on my cabin did not work properly, on a brand new train. This is not cool, and I don’t think it reflects well on ÖBB.

One of the other passengers in an adjacent cabin mentioned that this would not be good for sleeping if the cabin door was making noise sliding open and closed all night (notably, the “thunk!” it made at the end of its run), and from my point of view this rather subverted the promise of some privacy overnight.

I did ask one of the staff about this, however after poking at the door and attempting to operate the lock using the staff keys he shrugged and told me to take my phone with me if I went to the toilet during the night. Now is the point where I have to explain that ÖBB doesn’t actually directly employ any stewarding staff for the Nightjets, and instead subcontract this out to Newrest, which is a separate company. Other than reporting the defective door to ÖBB’s workshop and hoping that a technician will take a look at the next service stop, the Newrest staff have no ability to actually fix anything. The guy I spoke to looked pretty sick of dealing with broken doors, so I didn’t press him on the issue.

I was, however, able to put together a workaround. Remember the holder for the key card mounted on the inside wall of the cabin? Rather than being an entirely closed sheath for the card with a single opening on one end, its’s open at the lower corners to allow the card to be pushed up from below instead of grasping it from above. The handle for the door release on the shutter is – critically – approximately parallel to the key holder when the shutter is closed, so it’s possible to thread a fastener in the top of the key holder, out the side, and round the door handle. In other words, it’s possible to tie the door shut in a pinch. In my case a sacrificial pair of socks (an essential component of any good overnight bag) and some good knots did the job.

The train has an overnight quiet period from 10pm to 8am if memory serves, and no PA announcements are made during this time. If you need to get off the train before 8am, you’re on your own for ensuring you get off at the right place at the right time.

After travelling south down the high-speed line from Hanover to Würzburg, the train has a longer stop in the small hours at Nuremberg Central station for a round of mix-and-match shunting. Only half of the train is actually destined for Vienna; the other half is instead travelling to Innsbruck. In Nuremberg it meets another Nightjet service which started in Amsterdam, and which likewise has a Vienna half and an Innsbruck half. The Hamburg and Amsterdam trains are split in two, with the halves rearranged to form one whole train to Vienna and one whole train to Innsbruck.

As it happens the train coming from Amsterdam on this particular night had started very late (the prophesised better, bigger train delay!), so my train was stuck waiting around in Nuremberg for its counterpart for an hour longer than scheduled. In spite of the alleged slack in the timetables, this delay was not recovered before reaching Vienna. Past experience of sleeper trains dictates that I can’t sleep on when they’re not moving, and this one was no exception. I did eventually manage to fall asleep again by the time we got to Regensburg, though I woke up again an hour later in Passau. This was better than not sleeping at all, but overall I underslept and correspondingly added a strong coffee to my to-do list for once I arrived in Vienna.

After crossing the German-Austrian border at Passau the train continued traveling due east through Austria. The staff came through the train after the stop in Wels Central, and removed the bedding from all the cabins. I’m not exactly sure why they were yanking the bedding so early and why this couldn’t be done after emptying the train at the final destination, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention here.

As people started disembarking from the train in Austria, I noted that the doors make very similar noises to the new Class 483/484 trains on the Berlin S-Bahn and the third generation rolling stock on the Glasgow Subway. I’ve heard bits and pieces that there has been some EU regulation on making train doors all sound the same, possibly for accessibility reasons, though I don’t know the details – other than Berlin friends complaining about the door noises on the new S-Bahn trains being very loud and very shrill.

Eventually, with a delay of 57 minutes, we arrived in Vienna Central station. I was in no rush, as I hadn’t made a lot of plans for the day, and as first order of business I resolved to find a coffee house for a well-earned breakfast.

Act 2

The following evening, I took the reverse connection on the same line from Vienna back to Hamburg.

I have referred to this entire escapade as a “day trip” to Vienna, inasmuch as I spent only one single day there – albeit one bracketed by two very long train connections. A few friends have contested that this does not meet the definition of a day trip, as the travel did not fit into the same day as the main attraction.

In hindsight, taking sleeper trains on two consecutive days was something of a bold manoeuvre, and not one which I’m necessarily going to repeat in the future. On balance though, I don’t think I would have learned this lesson without the hands-on experience.

I arrived at Vienna Central in good time as before – though more for the pictures than orientation this time round. I’ve been developing a soft spot for Vienna Central, particularly for the rolling roof structures and open spaces – though presumably it gets cold when it’s windy. It looks really nice when the sun’s out and shining, though as I was preparing to board an overnight train this was very much not the case when I arrived.

Orienting oneself when boarding the train goes a lot smoother when you’ve done it before. This time round I was allocated one of the lower cabins. The booking form asks for a preference for an upper or lower cabin, however as I requested an upper cabin for both the outbound and return journeys, this definitely seems purely advisory. While I was definitely the kind of kid who always wanted to sleep on the top of the bunk bed, the lower cabins seem to be a little more practical, as getting in and out is a lot easier.

Thankfully I slept much better on the return journey, though this might have had something to do with me undersleeping on a night train the preceding night and then spending the whole day on my feet in Vienna. I would have very much liked to have slept earlier, however the German Federal Police perform border checks on incoming international trains, so I had to stay awake long enough for the checks at Passau. The checks were extremely uneventful, though based on a few stories I’ve heard circulating I strongly suspect that racial privilege helps with keeping it that way.

After Passau I was finally able to crash out for a few hours. There was again a longer shunting stop in Nuremberg with the inverse arrangement from the outbound journey – the trains from Vienna and Innsbruck respectively met and swapped carriages before proceeding onwards to Hamburg and Amsterdam. To my surprise, I managed to sleep through the shunting, and slept soundly all the way to Göttingen, south of Hanover, where my slumber was dashed once more by the curse of the stationary night train. We arrived in Göttingen early and stood idle there for about twenty-five minutes.

In the midst of my sleepless tossing and turning at Göttingen I did realise that I was a little cold, as the train’s climate control system was running. Earlier in the night I had been a bit too warm while the climate control was not running, but if there’s any way to adjust the per-cabin climate control then I didn’t find it. Nothing which the addition or removal of a hoodie would not be able to fix.

In spite of booking a return ticket back to Hamburg, I decided at short notice a few days beforehand to change at Hanover instead on the return leg. I needed to make a stop in Berlin on that morning, and it’s quicker to connect to Berlin from Hanover than to go north all the way to Hamburg first. Unfortunately, getting off early means waking up early, but the stop in Göttingen handily took care of that. In retrospect I might not actually have woken up before reaching Hanover otherwise.

Doubly unfortunately, the train was delayed for thirty minutes outside Hanover due to a signalling problem, and by that point my respirator was really starting to get uncomfortable. I doubt it was designed with continuous overnight wear in sleeper trains in mind, and keeping both it and my face suitably clean was a bit difficulty while spending multiple days continuously on the move. Requiring consecutive journeys in sleeper trains to be separated by at least one proper shower is a sensible rule for the future.

It occurred to me on this second round of sleeper trains that moving around and getting dressed in the mini-cabin reminiscent of the same inside a small tent. Certainly not for the claustrophobes among us, though the sold walls of the mini-cabin were a welcome upgrade for bracing myself against while attemping to translate through and rotate around various axes.

While I certainly felt the worse for wear by the time I stepped onto the platform in Hanover, there was sufficient time until the connection to Berlin to locate a light breakfast and a hot beverage of choice. All in all a successful adventure.

Coda

Would I travel in a Nightjet mini-cabin again in the future? Yes. The concept seems sound, even if the execution leaves something to be desired at times. A solid four out of five stars if you don’t mind improvising and thinking on the spot, but maybe deduct a star if you do. Taking two Nightjets back-to-back on consecutive nights probably warrants some more careful consideration in the future though, given the incurred accumulated sleep debt, which was at frequent risk of being collected throughout the following day.

I think the combination of sleeper trains and international rail travel have a certain seat-of-the-pants factor compared to day trains which I underestimated when signing up for this. From past experience, it’s quite surreal to wake up in the middle of the night and not know which country you’re in nor how you got there – though, merely hopping over the border from Germany to Austria seems relatively tame in this regard.

As a parting remark: entirely by coincidence, a day or two after my little adventure in a mini-cabin, my information bubble was graced by an online article from an Austrian newspaper (in German) on the topic of the Nightjets and the working conditions of the staff onboard. The picture is sadly not positive, though I’ll leave the ethical considerations of continuing to put one’s money into this venture as an exercise for the reader.