The Big Question: How did two rail enthusiasts fund their own €4.5 million sleeper train company?

Elmer van Buuren, Co-Founder of European Sleeper on The Big Question
Elmer van Buuren, Co-Founder of European Sleeper on The Big Question Copyright Euronews
Copyright Euronews
By Hannah BrownEleanor Butler
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Elmer van Buuren, CEO of a European night train firm, explains how he made his business dream a reality through community funding.


When Elmer van Buuren’s start-up crowdfunder raised €500,000 in 15 minutes, he thought his website was broken.

To his delight, it wasn’t - and two and a half years later, his donation pot has grown to €4.5 million.

All of this money is going towards Elmer’s night train firm, ‘European Sleeper’, which runs overnight rail journeys across the continent.

“I had always dreamt of having my own train company,” Elmer says. “This idea had been boiling inside for 25 years.”

“And I think the big difference between us and other train companies is that we are community owned.”

“We believed in crowdfunding [...] to raise the money, but also to involve people.” 

In the latest episode of The Big Question, Hannah Brown is joined by the co-founder of European Sleeper, Elmer van Buuren, to discuss if entrepreneurship is really accessible to all.

Why was now the time for a new night train company?

The European Sleeper company launched its first service in May 2023, which runs between Brussels, Amsterdam, and Berlin.

Although night trains may be associated with classics like “From Russia with Love’ or ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, they have gradually been falling out of fashion since the 1990s, partially due to the rise of low-budget airlines.

Elmer nonetheless argues that public demand for his service is still strong, particularly for travellers conscious of their carbon footprint.

“I think that the main reason why the night trains disappeared is not because there was no demand for night trains. It was because the companies that run the trains, usually the big national companies, they had a certain focus on other products like high speed trains, [...] they simply chose to focus on something else.”

Elmer points to his crowdfunding success as proof of this public demand, explaining how he wants to plug the gap in the market and give Europeans a more eco-friendly way to travel.

How to continue growing a business after crowdfunding?

The European Sleeper firm may have a promising future, but Elmer explains that expanding his business will bring challenges.

The company is currently using rented engines and carriages, as it didn’t have the original seed capital to invest in its own stock.

“We did this very much on purpose because we thought: we need to start running the train because we have momentum at the moment for the night train. People are talking about it.”

At around €2.5 to €3 million per carriage, running the service doesn’t come cheap.

To run one sleeper train service you need around 35 carriages and two engines, Elmer explains, meaning the daily running cost could be around €70 to €100 million. This sort of expenditure isn’t something you can pay for through crowdfunding, Elmer adds.

Moving forward, there aren’t enough overnight carriages in stock to support the expansion of the European Sleeper service.


“That means that we need to run projects to rebuild existing carriages into sleeping cars,” says Elmer.

Some of this growth will be funded by the European Commission, which is seeking to invest in climate-friendly travel to fulfil its green targets.

In particular, the EU is contributing to the rollout of a Amsterdam-Brussels-Barcelona service, expected to be launched in 2025.

Elmer says that for the service to run smoothly, his firm needs to prioritise cooperation between national train networks.

“So our train looks like it's a train from Brussels to Berlin, but it's actually three different trains with the same train number that we glue together,” he explains.


He also emphasises that the support of national train ticket providers is essential so that customers can easily find and book their places.

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs

Asked about tips he would give to aspiring business owners, Elmer ironically warns against taking too much advice from others, particularly friends and family.

“They will try to keep you from doing it because they’re afraid for you. It’s not because they don't want you to succeed but because they like you too much.”

He adds that a fear of failure shouldn’t prevent entrepreneurs from following their start-up ambitions.

“If you run yourself into perfectionism, you don't end up anywhere.”


Almost three years on from his crowdfunding experiment, the ambition behind the European Sleeper train firm isn’t going anywhere.

In the coming years, Elmer says he hopes to expand his rail network further across Europe, giving his customers more extensive, and greener travel options.

The Big Question is a series from Euronews Business where we sit down with industry leaders and experts to discuss some of the most important topics on today’s agenda.

Watch the full episode above to learn more about how Elmer and his team funded a brand new train company.

Video editor • Joanna Adhem

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