Bear in mind that the trains and networks already in service or under development are designed to travel at between 250 and 350 kmph. Don’t think it will probably never happen, it’s already happening.

As I looked into the possibility of the convenience and comfort of modern high speed trains, I soon found that plans are far more advanced than I had previously thought. I also soon discovered that the development of ‘hotel trains’ is also well advanced. Just a few years ago, it looked as though European sleeper trains were on their way to becoming a thing of the past as services were continually cut back. Not now, a French start-up has revealed plans for a new network of overnight services from Paris to 12 European destinations, including Edinburgh and Porto. They are not the only company planning this. Last December, Austria’s OBB announced a collaboration with Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, France’s SNCF and Swiss Federal Railways proposing a number of new “Nightjet” routes, and a sleeper train between Zurich and Barcelona.

Midnight trains

‘Midnight Trains’ hopes to reinvent the overnight train experience completely by launching a “hotel on rails” that offers a greener alternative to flying as well as a more comfortable alternative to the basic night train services long associated with Europe. They are planning to offer high quality rooms, all en-suite with high quality bedding and on demand TV. Top quality restaurant of course, or delivery to your room. By 2024 they plan to open Paris to Porto.

Companies reviving night trains are not only targeting tourists heading South, but business people as well, heading North from Paris. If there is a demand, they can already provide these services on high speed routes.

In the past, trains from Lisbon to Paris had to stop at Irun the border railway station where all trains have to stop, as those coming from/going into France have to change gauge from 1,668 mm (5 ft 5+21⁄32 in) Iberian gauge to 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+1⁄2 in) standard gauge. The electric pickup supply also changes here from 3000 V DC (overhead Spain) to 1500 V DC (overhead France).

The EU got it right

The good news is that the EU (who can occasionally get things organised) have established a common standard for TGV trains throughout Europe. That’s not just a dream, in a lot of cases the infrastructure is there – it’s already possible to run a Paris – Barcelona – Madrid – Seville high-speed train, traveling at speeds of up to 350 kmph. If demand is there the night train operators can easily offer the service. The speed of these new trains changes everything. Spain is already very advanced with their TGV network services, Seville-Madrid was incorporated for the Seville expo in 1992.

What about Portugal? Pedro Nuno Santos, minister of infrastructure and housing told the International Railway Journal that the government is spending €4.5m on the first stage of improving the service between Lisbon and Porto, eventually cutting the 2h 44min journey time to 1h 15min. He openly admits he wants to see the existing air bridge closed and replaced by this much more environmentally friendly TGV service, and bear in mind, its city centre to city centre. Lisbon Faro will follow, but it’s not a priority as the existing high speed Alfa Pendular is very popular.

The Lisbon-Madrid TGV link is now a priority, although dropped in 2012, work is now currently underway. Once complete that will mean Paris, Barcelona, Madrid Lisbon, all at speeds up to 350 kph will be operational. Currently the Lisbon-Madrid journey time is 10 hours, but with the TGV service the 500 km could well be covered in around two or three hours. The EU is investing heavily in this project.

There has been a lot of talk recently about a Seville-Faro TGV link, but realistically this project is far in the distance. It’s hard to believe that there would be a high passenger demand for this route and the investment needed is very high. Converting Lisbon-Faro to TGV capacity and speeds will be the first link from Faro into the European TGV service.

Who will this service appeal to?

Firstly, those who are committed to environmental reform. Global warming is a reality and there are those who will welcome the alternative of substantially lower CO2 emissions. The BBC calculated “Train virtually always comes out better than plane, often by a lot. A journey from London to Madrid would emit 43kg (95lb) of CO2 per passenger by train, but 118kg by plane”.

Secondly, the train beats the plane for comfort and convenience. If you are flying to Portugal for a weekend of golf, the train is not for you. Equally for a week’s holiday, flights will win hands down for the foreseeable future. But if you want to make the journey part of the holiday, avoid all the hassles of the airport, enjoy more legroom, a more comfortable seat, the ability to walk around, enjoy a great meal, not to mention a good night’s sleep as you glide across borders, the train is soon going to attract you. Watch the countryside out of your window, relax and enjoy. This is as near to stress free travel as it gets. Travel by train used to be thought of as glamorous, the Pullman cars, Wagon-lit, Orient Express and many other famous brands. Just maybe, the glamour of travel by rail is returning in glory. You won’t have to wait long.

I would like to thank Kevin Smith, Editor-in-Chief of the International Railway Journal who provided me with so much of the technical background for this feature.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman