France to redevelop sleeper trains

The French transport minister wants «10 overnight lines by 2030»

The French transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, onboard a couchette coach in renovation – Picture: SNCF

4After having been neglected for a long time, French overnight trains now seem ready to take a new start. In France, only two domestic night trains remain today (Paris-Briançon and Paris-Rodez/Toulouse-Latour-de-Carol/Portbou), but the French government is preparing a stategy to redevelop new night trains in the coming years.

 After having axed many overnight connections these last years, this U-turn is motivated by the new public awareness about the climate impact of aviation (with the « flight shame » movement), the growing demand for low-carbon alternatives, and is inspired by the success of the new international night trains network (« Nightjet ») developped by the Austrian national company ÖBB, with connections all the way to Hamburg, Brussels and Rome. The pandemic also stresses the need to better equilibrate the transport offer in favor of smaller cities and rural areas, where more and more people wish to live. Because the French high-speed network is very centered on Paris, there is a lack of direct transverse overnight connections between remote regions (for example, the fastest train trip from Bordeaux to Nice is about 9 hours, which would be perfect for a night sleep).

First of all, the rolling stock for the remaining 2 lines existing today is being completely refurbished, to offer modern confort with wi-fi, more comfortable couchettes and better noise insulation. 44 million € are invested to renew 71 coaches, with couchettes and reclining seats. It was high time, since the rolling stock is about 40 years old and looks quite decrepit, although it is still very appreciated by regular users. But on the long term, it will be necessary to order the construction of brand-new trains because, even renovated, these couchette coaches probably won’t last much later than 2030.

In 2020, everything accelerated, with the French president Emmanuel Macron announcing his intention to « redevelop night trains », as part of the economic recovery plan. The return of the night trains Paris-Nice and Paris-Tarbes-Irun was announced, with 100 million € dedicated to these two new lines. 22 more old SNCF couchette coaches will be renovated, and more comfortable sleeper coaches might be rented from the Austrians or the Russians, in order to offer a comfort level in line with the new modern European standards, as proposed in the Nightjet, Thello, or Caledonian Sleeper trains. Covid permitting, the Paris-Nice connection is planned to start in April 2021, while Paris-Tarbes-Irun is programmed for December 2021.

The Paris-Nice will be a branch added to Paris-Briançon (as was the cas until 2017), while the Paris-Tarbes train will likely be a new branch of the line from Paris to Toulouse (but things are not settled yet about this line). For the moment, it is not sure whether the line Paris-Tarbes will continue to Irun, this may be the case only during the high summer season.

In december 2020, some more good news came from a joint statement of Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France, announcing an extension of the Austrian Nightjet network in the coming years. A new Paris-Munich-Vienna is due for December 2021, with Paris-Berlin following 2 years later, and Zurich-Perpignan-Barcelona at the end of 2024.

But the revival of French night trains won’t stop here : following an important mobilization of citizens, environmental associations and politicians during the debates of a transport law in 2019, the government accepted to lauch a study of possible new overnight connections. This study is about to be published soon, and some first elements were revealed last week : the transport minister wishes to have « 10 overnight trains by 2030 » (probably including the 2 existing lines, as well as Paris-Nice, Paris-Tarbes-Irun, Paris-Vienna and Paris-Berlin, meaning that about 4 more lines are to come).

The detailed routes of these possible new connections are not yet fixed, but the study has identified 4 interesting corridors : Bordeaux-Marseille, Tours-Lyon, Dijon-Marseille, and Paris-Toulouse. Along each corridor, a certain number of branches may be gathered to form a single train, meaning for example that on the corridor Dijon-Marseille, there could be a train with a branch from Metz and Strasbourg, an other from Lille, and the train could split in the South to serve Nice and Perpignan. The train Bordeaux-Marseille will very likely continue to Nice, the train Tours-Lyon will likely start somewhere in Brittany, Brest, Nantes or Quimper, and may head to Geneva or to the French ski resorts. Along the Paris-Toulouse line (where a night train already exists), new branches could be added to serve other destinations.

To operate these new night trains, new rolling stock will probably be necessary, and track renovations are planned in the coming years on some portions. Therefore, the time horizon for these new lines is probably between 2025 and 2030, hence the proclaimed ambition to have « 10 night trains by 2030 ». Financing and calendar are now being discussed between the different ministers, so the level of ambition is not yet completely decided.

The French activists group « Oui au train de nuit » (Yes to the night trains) welcomes this new development, which will be very positive for the climate and for the mobility between remote regions. But more propositions are expected concerning international trains, which are also supposed to be tackled by the study of the governement : connexions to Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Prague and Copenhagen for example are missing for the moment. Also, some important transverse corridors have been neglected, for example between Brittany (Rennes, Nantes, Quimper) and the South-West (Bordeaux, Toulouse, Perpignan, Hendaye), or between the South-West, Lyon and Geneva. The activists group also pushes for more rural regions like the center mountaineous region of « Auvergne » not to be forgotten : there, cities like Aurillac or Millau are very isolated and deserve at least an overnight connection to Paris.

Sleeper train network suggested by “Oui au train de nuit” for 2030, with 15 national lines and 15 european lines

To show the potential for night trains to link the French regions between them and to connect them to Europe, « Oui au train de nuit » proposes a vision for 2030 with 15 domestic overnight lines (some of them slightly crossing the borders, for example to Geneva or Brussels), and 15 international lines, going all the way to Lisbon, Malmö or Budapest. The launch of this network by 2030 would represent an investment of about 1.5 billion €. For these lines, a possible timetable has been designed, and a study estimated that this network could attract more than 10 million passengers per year, mostly shifted from planes and cars, thus representing an important saving of CO2. The aim in the coming months is to ask the regions to take position on these propositions, so that night trains become an important topic in the debate for the regional elections, planned in June 2021. Stay tuned ! More informations on www.ouiautraindenuit.wordpress.com.

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