Put the night trains back on track for climate-friendly transports
A case study on the potential of the French “Intercités de nuit” by the association « Oui au train de nuit » 2017 – available in French, English and German!
— Summary —
The climate challenge of this century encourages to rethink our mobility. Planes and individual cars, very energy-consuming, are used for a great portion of very-long-distance travels (more than 750 km). In order to progress towards modal shift to more ecological modes, massive investments for rail have been made since the 2000’s. They have been mostly concentrated on High-Speed-Lines (LGV, in French) projects.
But in spite of these huge investments, these projects did not reduce of the emissions of aviation, which keep growing in France. What’s more, it is becoming very complicated to finance the expansion of the LGV network, as the most relevant lines – between metropolises separated by 400 to 750 km – have already been built. And nowadays passengers tend to prefer cheaper tickets to faster journeys.
Besides, an other rail solution for very long distances, the InterCity Night train (ICN) sees its dismantling accelerated in 2016-2017. As for the classical railway network and the daytime Intercity trains (ICJ for “InterCités de Jour”), they have suffered underinvestment during all these years.
Neglected for the last decades, the ICN offer now has problems of visibility, unattractive timetables, and too frequent delays and cancellations: it seems that its use has been – willingly or not – discouraged. SNCF and the French State have kept repeating contradictory justifications around the “alleged deficit” and “empty” night trains, but they have high occupancy rates. The ICN has in fact quite many advantages :
✔ Saving time: To travel more than 750 km and to arrive in the morning, the ICN offers a very useful and appreciated “night jump”. The day train would force to leave on the day before, and to pay for accommodation. The ICN therefore saves half a day and leaves the whole day on destination: “the ICN allows to travel 1000 km in one hour: ½ h to fall asleep, and ½ h to wake up”.
✔ A multi-directional network to serve the regions: As high-speed trains have to make few stopovers, they do not benefit much to small cities. What’s more, the LGV network forgets transverse relations, which do not pass through Paris. Night trains are therefore necessary to irrigate mediumsized cities and to connect directly regions that are far from one another.
✔ To connect South of France to the rest of the county: Many Southern cities are located more than 750 km away from Paris, which is too long for high-speed lines to be relevant. Furthermore, Paris being rather north than at the centre of France, it is not a good transport hub for southern regions: from the latter, to go through Paris to reach the East, West or Centre increases distances, costs and duration of travel. An expensive TGV journey of more than 4 or even 6 hours is not attractive. Consequently, the decline of Intercity trains makes a large part of France being considered almost inaccessible by train from the South.
✔ A sober mode in terms of public funding: beyond the pretext of the “so-called deficit”, the ICN remains one of the transportation modes which is closest to self-financing. Replacing these trains with planes or LGV projects would be much more expensive for the taxpayer and for the traveller.
✔ A climate-friendly mode: the night train not only consumes little energy, but it uses the existing infrastructure and thus avoids creating new artificial surfaces. It fosters modal shift from air to rail, in a much cheaper way than LGV projects do, with a wider scope, while being much faster to implement.
✔ Travel on a European scale: relevant for distances from 550 km up to 1500 km, the ICN can serve regions of the South and also international connections. Austria, Russia, Finland and Sweden are already betting on the night train. France can also play a key role in Western Europe for modal shift from planes to ICN.
“We are at the verge of a renaissance for night trains”, so let’s not lose time. Climate change doesn’t wait…