France is set to say au revoir to the couchette, as the country’s department of transport prepares to withdraw overnight train routes from Paris.
The French government, which owns the national rail operator SNCF, has said sleeper trains are too expensive to run; it has withdrawn financial support and invited bids to run the services. But unless a proposal is received by July 1 all but three of the dozen or so overnight services will be axed. The only remaining Intercités de Nuit will be from Paris to Briancon, Rodez and Latour de Carol, routes deemed socially necessary, according to rail website The Man in Seat Sixty-one.
The news is a further nail in the coffin for sleeper trains across Europe, and amajor blow for any travellers trying to reduce their carbon emissions. Overnight services between France and Germany hit the buffers in December 2014 when Deutsche Bahn, the German rail provider, closed its night service between Paris and Berlin, Hamburg and Munich.
A year earlier night time connections between Paris and Madrid and Barcelona, run jointly by SNCF and the Spanish rail provider Renfe, were withdrawn when the high speed TGV service between the French capital and Barcelona was introduced.
“The economics are stacked against night trains – once you add [competition from] budget airlines and hefty track access fees,” said Mark Smith founder of The Man in Seat Sixty-one.
However, Smith also said that new high-speed services, cited as one reason for closures, were not always a useful substitute for night trains: “Paris-Madrid still takes eight hours, so it makes sense to do it overnight – but you can’t.”
Daniel Elkan, who runs Snowcarbon.co.uk which promotes rail travel from the UK to Alpine ski resorts, believes more skiers would use night trains to the slopes if they knew about them. “Poor marketing of the overnight services by the train companies means that many skiers are unaware or have difficultly finding out about them; and much to the frustration of skiers, these journeys consistently go on sale later than they are supposed to.”
Tickets are currently still on sale for night train bookings beyond July although Smith said their survival is unlikely. Nevertheless, he has backed a petition launched by Snowcarbon calling on the French government to save the night trains, even if it means reducing the services to once a week.
Across Europe it looks increasingly like the era of the night train is coming to an end. Smith’s Man in Seat Sixty-one website now reflects the lack of overnight services, with popular France and Spain pages focusing on day trains.
“It’s a bit like going back to the end of the 19th century – before George Nagelmackers founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits,” said Smith.
In contrast, the UK is investing in sleeper services with 75 new coaches being introduced on the Caledonian Sleeper routes between London and Scotland in 2018, and a major upgrade on the Night Riviera service between London and Penzance.