Season 10 - The night train

Episode 1 - The rise and fall (temporary) of the night train

We’ve covered a lot of emerging and imaginary technologies in this section. Questionable ones like the hydrogen train, surprising ones like the electric plane, tempting ones like the biogas train and downright depressing ones like the sustainable fuel aircraft. With the possible exception of the electric car and the self-driving car, they all exist on the fringes of the transport industry, and some are just complete fantasy.

However, for this next season, we’re going to focus on some very old technology. Even if it doesn’t excite the techno-popes of Silicon Valley or the old guard’s compulsive greenwashers, it could once genuinely revolutionise the transport industry. It’s... drum roll... the night train. Obviously if you’re here, reading this article, it’s because you like night trains and you’re interested in them. So you already know that, in a world that seeks to decarbonise all sectors, they represent a very serious alternative to short and medium-haul aircraft. That’s provided they can be redeveloped in countries like France, which have gradually removed them from the tracks. What you might not be aware of is that night trains have already represented a transportation revolution. Almost as old as the railroad itself, they replaced another type of night transportation: stagecoaches, which had many faults. They had to change horses regularly, and depended on the state of the roads which were sometimes catastrophic. The weather could also worsen things dramatically. And that’s before you consider the bandits, thieves, crooked innkeepers and accidents. As Clive Lamming, railway historian explains on his blog, it took around twenty days to reach Marseille from Paris by stagecoach. Night trains took just twenty hours.

The same goes for other destinations that were reachable from Paris in the first half of the 19th century: the duration is brutal. Brussels, for example, was only a dozen hours away and yet a different world. These journeys were too long to be carried out during the day, but could be done in one go. You could feasibly leave for a business meeting today, to arrive for tomorrow. It drastically reduced the risk of accidents, attacks and theft, without making them completely disappear. The famous travel writer Blaise Cendrars even spoke of the “international express specialists” who were adept at cross-border twists and turns.

The time savings and safety certainly compensated for the lack of comfort of the first night trains. Some tried to install beds, removable or not. Others design support harnesses for sleeping seated during nighttime journeys. George Pullman revolutionised comfort on board night trains and gave them a solid reputation, while Georges Nagelmackers imports the concept to Europe and increases the level of intimacy, a bit like Midnight Trains intends to do on another scale. He made it even more prestigious thanks to his Compagnie des Wagons-Lits and the inaugural voyage of the Orient-Express in 1883. As well as successfully crossing borders at a time when Europe wasn’t really a union, this legendary train created a luxurious image that obscured the reality of night trains. Outside of the ultra-rich, most people still travelled in diverse and quite creative ways. These range from lounge beds (seat compartments that unfold lengthwise) to luggage nets, including squatting on armchairs to lie down. In France, night rail travel exploded with the arrival of paid leave in 1936. After the Second World War, night trains served more than 500 stations in France and formed the backbone of domestic mass tourism. At the time, no one was considering planetary and environmental limits, but people had holidays, increasing purchasing power, and still, very few cars and poorly developed highways.

But the shift flips within a few decades, for a number of reasons. Here’s a non-exhaustive list: humans continue to have no interest in the future of the planet. The personal car becomes more popular. High speed trains ​​arrive on the scene and partially remove the interest in overnight trips. Roads and highways improve in quality and volume. Conscripts are a significant part of the night train clientele, but Jacque Chirac abolished military service. Low-cost airlines are booming, followed by the two-stage appearance of long-distance night buses. Shares in night trains are collapsing, and governments cut budgets. The number of stops served melts like snow in the sun. Very much cutting to the chase, the Covid-19 pandemic dealt the final blow to night trains. In 2019, there are only two left in all of France. Coming out of the greatest global shutdown in history, some people no longer make fun of traveling in a sustainable and comfortable way. Rather than trying to fuel planes with magic beans or old fryer oil, some suggest bringing out the good old night trains. Neat idea, right?

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