Season 10 - The night train

Episode 4 - Will night trains replace planes?

And just like that, the season of Bright Futures dedicated to the night train is coming to an end. After exploring the history of this mode of transport, examining its ecological credentials and verifying its large-scale deployability, it’s time to take stock of its potential future. And by extension, the deadlines at which it could change our daily lives, those of our children or grandchildren. Will they grow up in a world where night trains are the norm for domestic and European travel? Will this means of transport be so popular that activities will adapt accordingly? Will comedy troupes perform on night trains? Will food chains, micro cinemas and nightclubs open on the rails to keep us busy on our trips, rather than relying on high speed trains? Will it become such a big part of our daily lives? Who knows - nothing is impossible without ambition.

But let's stop dreaming for a few moments and return to more factual issues. As seen in previous episodes, night train technology is ready as it’s “simply” a train that runs at night. If this means of transport could become more intimate, secure, comfortable and quality (a bit like Midnight Trains), it’s definitely ready and has been for decades. It’s always good to remember that a solution that enables humans to travel further by train has been around for a long time using an existing network, with an extremely low carbon footprint, so our first prospective deadline will be today.

However, as we’ve already mentioned, establishing a night train network capable of replacing – or at least competing with – short or medium haul planes requires effort. The purchase of thousands of night train cars, the development of interoperable locomotives throughout Europe, the training of thousands of personnel (drivers, controllers, maintenance technicians, etc.) or even the organisation of railway infrastructures to manage at the same time works and night traffic cannot happen overnight. “Even if we got started tomorrow, even if we had all financial and technical means available for such a project, even if all of France mobilised with the aim of developing such a network, it would take at least five or ten years,” says Patricia Pérennes, transport economist at the firm Trans-Missions. “At the European level, certain countries are already ahead of the game in new rolling stock and relaunching certain night lines. So I think that it would take no more than 20 years to set up an equivalent network at European level, provided there’s a lot of commitment from governments.” Nicolas Bargelès, director of rail operations at Midnight Trains, shares the main points of this analysis: “If we add to the political will, better access to infrastructure and rolling stock, it would take at least 10 or 15 years, or 20 years at a European level.” So boiling it down, we have two other deadlines: ten years for a French network and 20 years for a European network. So, here’s how the future might play out:

Today, in 2023, as night train technology is ready:

  • The network and know-how already exists, it’s possible to make the rolling stock and millions of unemployed people are just waiting to be trained and recruited for a job that makes sense.
  • Well, it’s better than tomorrow and much better than the day after tomorrow. Especially as the melting of the sea ice is already accelerating.
  • Our children and our children's children still have a chance of living without having to wear gas masks, as long as we act quickly.
  • People still remember the night train and they regret its disappearance, so we have to take advantage of the hype to make things happen.

In 2033, when a French night train could replace domestic planes:

  • The network will still be there, as will the know-how and, without doubt, there will always be people looking for work.
  • Children born that year will probably never see monk seals or clams. Because they will have disappeared.
  • Besides, if nothing is done, these children will think that night trains are animals too. Large, gentle metal snakes that roamed the countryside.
  • Some teenagers will explore night train graveyards where they’ll find missing objects: wired headsets, mechanical watches, board games...

In 2043, when a European night train network could replace short and medium-haul planes:

  • The network will always be there, and people looking for a meaningful job certainly will too. As for the railway know-how linked to the night train, it could be hard to keep up...
  • There will be twice as many planes in the sky as today, equating to more than 46,560 planes, compared to 23,000 today. Children will count them to fall asleep, since sheep have been extinct.
  • If nothing is done, the air will become unbreathable and the heat unbearable, to the point that planes will have to fly at night, so their passengers don’t lose consciousness. All that, in the absence of a good night train network on which you can sleep comfortably…

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