Season 10 - The night train

Episode 3 - Can we really replace planes with trains?

The night train had its heyday. It’s certainly more environmentally friendly and sustainable than other transportation, especially planes, buses and personal cars. And more people now travel on the night train. Politicians make announcements about them, with each more extraordinary than the last. Journalists and influencers are using the poetry and charm of the night train to promote it. When people hear the promises or read these articles, many remember how much they loved this means of transportation. They evoke family vacations to the sea or the mountains, or leave from military service. But if everyone likes it so much, why isn't the night train already back on French railways? Can we really do it?

For Nicolas Bargelès, director of rail operations at Midnight Trains, the answer is very clear: “France did it in the past, and had quite an extensive network of night trains before the decline from 1995-2000. In terms of infrastructure, the country has everything it needs. It was external factors that doomed the night train, not its technical ability to run.” So much for the network. But what about the availability of train routes since, as we saw in season 9 of Confidences, the work is carried out at night, which complicates the circulation of night-time traffic. “It’s clear that we don’t have the coverage of a network like Germany, but French railways are dense and there are many alternative rail routes. With a little good will, creativity and ambition, it’s entirely possible to make the work more porous when night trains pass by avoiding blocking both tracks at the same time on a given line. The infrastructure manager often favors total closures to optimise its own costs, but this is entirely feasible operationally,” explains Bargelès.

However, obviously, if we wanted to replace domestic planes (which fly from one mainland French city to another), we’d also need rolling stock. Lots of rolling stock. “Since the advent of high speed trains, the SNCF hasn’t had much to do with its night rolling stock. What little it had left, it kept because the State suddenly announced the relaunch of night trains and asked them for a quick and modest makeover. But in reality, it’s forty-year-old equipment with different fabrics, new electrical outlets and WIFI. They have gained ten years of life, but no more,” says Bargelès. For the four existing lines alone, with two trains per day, at least a hundred new carriages would be needed. That’s at least 25 per line. If you multiply that by thirty to reach the French government’s network promise by 2030, there will be 750 carriages. It’s analysis shared by Patricia Pérennes, transport economist at the firm Trans-Missions. To build a real French night-time network, it would be necessary to push beyond a thousand passenger cars, perhaps even two thousand.

But then a question arises: who would drive these trains? “Without a doubt, establishing such a network would require hundreds of new recruits. Schools and new professions should be created. It would take time, but isn’t impossible, provided there’s political will and huge budgets,” continues Pérennes. Another solution: the French state could outsource it. “If they agree to relaunch lines that are losing money, they could set up a public service delegation for the management of night trains and provide the fleet to the operator. The government is thinking about it and so it could happen by 2028-2029,” says Bargelès. “The candidates aren’t yet known, since there hasn’t been a call for tenders, but we can imagine that new entrants are interested in it, as well as subsidiaries of historic European operators. And why not Midnight Trains? The only problem is that it’s unlikely that this future fleet will go so far in expanding travelers’ personal space, even though this will be one of our trademarks.” However, as Pérennes points out, citing a 6T study, only 25% of people said they prefer the aeroplane to the night train. What could convince these diehards? “Through a high-end offer guaranteeing them greater security (private cabin) and comfort (catering service, shower room, etc.).” Does this remind you of something? Hope so…

But here’s the crux of the matter. Redeploying a real night train network would require money (lots of), and political will (also lots of). Starting with a real plan to revive the night train based on the needs of real people, not just reincarnating the system that failed. However, there are two axes for this. First, as Bargelès says: “rather than benefitting from tax-free fuel, the aviation industry will finally have to pay the socio-economic consequences of its impact on the planet; and the carbon emissions reform, which comes into effect in 2026, will have an effect too.” As Pérennes says, we’d have to agree to build a world where we travel a little less, at a different speed.

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