The iconic Train Bleu

How night trains began to lose their allure

Let’s get a little bit closer to the Lombard capital by climbing aboard an iconic (and now long-gone) service: the Train Bleu. This history of this legendary train closely mirrors that of sleeper trains in general, from their heyday to their decline. It all started in 1883. Just a few months after the launch of the Orient-Express, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits decided to create a new service linking Calais with Rome via Nice. The route changed a little over the following decades, with the final stop actually ending up being Ventimiglia, near Genoa. But it was in the wake of the First World War, as the Roaring Twenties kicked in, that it took on the mythical status it still enjoys today.

The stakes were huge. France, at that time, was aiming to develop the tourism industry down on the Côte d’Azur and the Train Bleu was rolled out as the most dazzling ambassador you could imagine. On board, the travel experience was incredibly luxurious, especially by the standards of the time: private bedrooms, spotless sheets, comfy mattresses, understated lighting, efficient heating, bathrooms, a ‘wagon-restaurant’ that was actually deserving of the name. It was a bit like what we’re striving for at Midnight Trains today, with the one major difference being that we’re not a luxury company: we’re simply rethinking the standards travellers expect when it comes to sleeper trains.

The success was immediate and celebrity passengers were to include Sacha Guitry, Marlène Dietrich, the prince Aga Khan and even Grace Kelly, who was due to hop on the service the very night she died. Several other starry regulars helped contribute to mythology surrounding the train: Jean Cocteau penned the libretto for the ballet Le Train Bleu, costume-designed by none other than Coco Chanel. Another writer, well versed in setting her novels on trains, also decided to set one of her crime thrillers on board: in Le Train Bleu, Agatha Christie helped sharpen the detective nous of Hercule Poirot, a good few years before he climbed aboard the Orient-Express and solved another crime we’re probably all much more familiar with.

The train later became known all over the world and its cultural impact remained intact right up until 1976, when in the first sign the service had begun to lose its touch, its renowned bar carriage was removed. Over the following years, the services were never updated and soon looked a little outdated, while the arrival of TGV also hastened its decline. A less dazzling Intercités night service then replaced it on the line between Paris and Nice, until that too was suspended. (As it happens, it was revived once again a few months ago, albeit without many improvements in facilities, following a mandate from the French government.)

The end of the Train Bleu makes sense in the context of the progressive decline of night trains in France. The priority was very much on speed, and the joy derived from this slower form of travel was long forgotten about – until we got to a point where almost all sleeper trains had disappeared, both in France and throughout Europe. And that’s where Midnight Trains comes in: we’re determined to reinvigorate the night-train business, beyond all your wildest dreams, offering an accessible (and one-of-a-kind) travel experience.

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