Dear fellow travellers
A couple of years ago, writing in hidden europe magazine, we commented on the departure boards at the main railway station at Basel. "No longer bubbling with as much character as once they did," we wrote. But Basel's SBB station in 2012 still had its moments, the best of which was the departure early each evening of the Aurora - the night train to Copenhagen.
Back in 2012, the Aurora carried through carriages to Minsk and Moscow. This invariably fostered a little uncertainty on the railway platform at Basel as Danes returning home suddenly found themselves confronted by railway carriages embellished with Cyrillic script.
The Belarusian and Russian carriages were axed from the Aurora in December 2013. Travellers from Switzerland bound for Minsk or Moscow had already discovered that it was far quicker to use regular trains to travel north from Basel to either Strasbourg or Mannheim, connecting in one of those cities onto the Paris to Moscow Trans-European Express for the long journey east. It cut a few hours off the journey time and the sleeping cars on the Paris to Moscow train were much more comfortable than those attached to the Aurora.
From feast to famine
The demise of these exotic carriages deprived the Aurora of some of her character. And of course the train was then shorter - just seven carriages, all of them bound for Copenhagen. Then this spring, the Aurora was dealt a cruel blow. The restaurant car, which was really excellent, was dropped from the train (just as, from 1 May this year, City Night Line removed all its remaining restaurant cars from its overnight trains).
As the Aurora left Basel just after six in the evening, travellers could enjoy a leisurely dinner on board while cruising north along the Rhine Valley though Freiburg and beyond. The dropping of the restaurant car removed one of the key advantages that the overnight train offered over the plane. The real pleasure of travelling on the Aurora began to fade.
Wake at dawn and take the bus
On many days this summer the Aurora has not run right through to Copenhagen. This morning, for example, the train terminated at Flensburg (in northern Germany, just short of the Danish border). There is a big difference between being able to sleep right through to the Danish capital for an arrival just after ten and being turfed out of bed before six in the morning because the night train to Denmark is not actually running through to Denmark. On those days when the train has terminated at Flensburg, passengers changed onto a bus for the onward journey across the Danish border.
End of the line for the Aurora
It is no surprise that passengers who once valued the Aurora as a key overnight link between Switzerland and Denmark are having second thoughts. Passenger numbers have dwindled. Now it has been announced that the service will be axed from mid-December 2014 at the latest. Perhaps even from as early as 3 November 2014.
The Aurora runs via Hannover, where it picks up sleeping cars from both Amsterdam and Prague to Copenhagen. With the demise of the Aurora, those direct services from the Czech Republic and the Netherlands will also slip from the timetables later this year. Denmark will thus be left without a single night sleeper service.
A similar tale could be told of many of Europe's overnight trains, where a decline in service quality has all too often been the prelude to the eventual demise of a key overnight link.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine).