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I saw a general tendency, at least in Europe, for newer trains to have significantly bright lighting in passenger carriages.

During the evening and at night, I find those can be an inconvenience for:

  • Getting some sleep

  • Relieving eye strain

  • Looking out through the window when it is dark outside, as what you mostly see is the reflection of the car interior

Compartment cars of the past had switches that can be used by passengers to turn the lights of each compartment off. But those are nowhere to be found in new trains.

I found some interesting alternative approaches in some more touristy railways such as the MOB / Goldenpass in Switzerland. Cars use a system of indirect lighting of warm colour which lights up the car furniture without glaring into the eyes. The German ICE 4 also has part of the lighting progressively turning to an orange color after 6pm. But those seem exceptions.

One morning, I got on a refurbished German ICE 3. It was retrofitted with insanely bright LEDs. For a 6am departure, the prospect of getting some sleep in there was off-limits.

In addition, there are still personal reading lights available in most long-distance carriages. People who actually need more light can turn those on.

In comparison, lights are often turned off in long-distance buses and long-haul flights during the night - not accounting for takeoff and landing blackouts that are for safety reasons. Why do trains keep them on all the time?

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    There are quite a few exceptions. Early TGVs in France often have limited lighting. Newer Francilien trains in the Paris region have complex coloured LED systems which are often dimmed. But I guess some people may feel there are personal security issues if there is very little light, especially in trains with few people on board and limited staff.
    – jcaron
    Jul 4, 2023 at 1:53
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    Sleeper trains such as ones run by RZD allow for complete darkness in 1st/2nd class and quite dim light in 3rd.
    – alamar
    Jul 4, 2023 at 10:40
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    That's what sleep masks are for. Amtrak turns the lights down on overnight trains, but those have a very different clientele. Jul 5, 2023 at 2:15
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    @DavGin Let me guess, you're a solid guy who rarely feels threatened? Put yourself in the smaller shoes of a young woman who finds herself on a quiet train on a dark night. Then see if you'd like the lights turned down. Jul 5, 2023 at 14:14
  • @OscarBravo, that is a common misconception that city planners also often fall for -- if you want to light for security purposes, you want (there's even a proverb about it) "to avoid dark corners". This means even, non-directional lighting. Brightness does not factor in at all, as soon as you're above a certain minimum threshold. However, if you just put quite bright lighting somewhere, you'll just increase contrast and make dark corners even darker.
    – jstarek
    Jul 31, 2023 at 13:27

2 Answers 2

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As a general rule, local commuter trains are usually brightly lit, because there's a high frequency of passengers getting on and off, and people are not expected to sleep in them. Some of course do, but it's not intended. On the other hand, long-distance trains have much softer interior lighting. I've never seen a compartment car in which the compartment lights can't be adjusted. Usually there's some minimum level enforced, to prevent complete darkness, but it's dark enough to allow some sleep.

And of course there are safety and security issues. Yes, pickpocketing can also occur on an airplane, but only as an opportunistic theft: another passenger might see something valuable and seize it. In contrast, trains are frequented by career criminals who have no intention of travelling anywhere, they just want to steal something. That does not happen in airplanes. Bright lighting complicates the thieves' job.

Moreover, trains often get vandalized by certain passengers, who of course prefer dim lights and are discouraged by bright lighting. If the train interior is under video surveillance, bright lighting is necessary to ensure proper quality of the recordings. Again, airlines don't have to worry about this.

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    "I've never seen a compartment car in which the compartment lights can't be adjusted": I haven't seen a compartment car outside of a night train in at least 20 years. I am sure they're in use somewhere, but they're exceedingly rare in western Europe these days. "That does not happen in airplanes": it's much easier to make one's escape in a train, if not by disembarking just as the doors are closing then by moving to another car. Neither is possible in an airplane.
    – phoog
    Jul 4, 2023 at 10:08
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    criminals indeed. Some routes are known to be used for "commuting" criminals on the way to and from "work". Sadly that includes the main routes along the tracks where I live, the trains here are definitely NOT a nice way to travel in the quiet hours.
    – jwenting
    Jul 4, 2023 at 10:29
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    @phoog DB (Germany)/ÖBB (Austria) frequently have compartment cars in their EC/IC services during the day. Jul 4, 2023 at 11:11
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    Not sure if the lighting actually reduces vandalism, criminality etc., but at least it's done to improve the subjective feeling of safety - same as you are probably more likely to use a brightly lit and clean underpass at night then you are if it's dimly lit and full of graffiti. I can give an example too: the trains of the Munich S-Bahn were recently refurbished - before, they had a single row of fluorescent tubes; now, they have two rows of LED strips on the ceiling, as well as additional lighting over the doors and windows.
    – rob74
    Jul 4, 2023 at 13:07
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    If there is CCTV in the train, good lighting is necessary so the CCTV is able to capture good images of any crimes that are committed. Jul 5, 2023 at 17:32
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Early morning trains and most night trains where the passengers travel short(ish) distances are meant for people to stay awake. And enough light to feel safe is important in those trains.
6 am may be middle of the night for you, for many factory workers it is a normal or late commute. I have seen enough people enjoying a bit of sleep in their morning commute to know that sleeping in full light is possible.

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    "Sleeping in full light is possible": but it is more difficult than sleeping in darkness. Fortunately (for the well organized traveler, at least), eye masks blocking the light are fairly effective.
    – phoog
    Jul 4, 2023 at 10:05
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    indeed. I've taken a few night trains here in the Netherlands and felt decidedly unsafe, despite the reasonable (but not excessive) light levels. In part because it was on a route known for "unsavory types" (route used by a lot of criminals during late hours, NS since introduced extra staff on those trains, but hadn't yet at the time).
    – jwenting
    Jul 4, 2023 at 10:27
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    @phoog it's called a sleep mask, or I just throw a random dark T-shirt across my eyes. Jul 5, 2023 at 2:17
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    Bright lights disrupt circadian rhythms. If you travel on a late train and get home. Then you might find difficult to get some sleep.
    – FluidCode
    Jul 5, 2023 at 11:40
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    Relieving eye strain does not mean that people have to sleep.
    – FluidCode
    Jul 5, 2023 at 11:48

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