Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Half the country’s domestic night routes will be scrapped this autumn.
This autumn, France will wave goodbye to fully half of its night train service. According to an announcement from SNCF, four of France’s eight overnight rail services will cease service on October 1. The four remaining lines will continue for now, but two of them are only being granted a reprieve until mid-to-late 2017. It’s beginning to look a lot the end of an era.
Once a signature experience of European travel, nights spent drowsily resting in a rattling couchette could soon be just a memory people bore their grandchildren with. This might sound somewhat sad but, given how much travel has changed has changed across much of Europe, it’s arguably inevitable.
The French night train routes destined for the chop say a lot about what these services were originally planned for. On the way out are night connections between Paris and the alpine cities of Saint Gervais and Bourg-Saint-Maurice, and between Paris and the Southern city of Albi. Beyond Paris, night services linking Luxembourg and Strasbourg with Nice and Portbou (the first stop after the French border on Spain’s Mediterranean coast) will also go. Services from Paris to Nice and to Irun (first Spanish stop on the Atlantic coast) will continue until July and October 2017, respectively. The only two as-yet unthreatened services are one to Briançon in the French Alps, and a service to the Pyrenees via Rodez.
You may never have heard of many of these destinations. If so, that’s not your fault, as the lines were not intended to connect major cities. Instead, they were designed to ferry metropolitan tourists to holiday spots, allowing them to maximize their days off by traveling overnight and waking up in their chosen vacation spot. Bourg Saint Maurice is at the heart of French skiing country, while Albi, a beautiful small city built in rosy brick, is at the heart of southeastern France’s second-home country. Nice is the gateway to the French Riviera, while the French coast running up to Portbou is also strung with beach resorts.
The lines are being scrapped because, financially, they’re far from pulling their weight. The night train’s passenger share of national rail company SNCF’s Intercités network—the non-high-speed part of their service—is just three percent of the annual total. Despite this, they contribute 25 percent of Intercités’ annual deficit, and it’s estimated that each night train ticket currently receives a public subsidy of €100 ($110). There is an argument to be made for keeping up subsidized services that improve the economic function and quality of life for people who live near less-frequented destinations. Still, it’s no great surprise that SNCF is dropping these loss makers without much chagrin.
The truth is that, while international overnight services from France to other countries continue, night trains are fading out across Europe. Indeed, they were probably doomed from the moment the cost of air travel dropped after the E.U. deregulated the airline industry in 1992. Back in the 1980s, when a night train ticket across Europe could cost comfortably less than half the price of a flight, night trains seemed like a pretty good idea. Not only you could wake up at your destination, you actually got to sleep in something resembling a real bed, and all for what seemed at the time to be a reasonable price. Nowadays it’s harder to relish the experience of sharing a small, jerking, bathroom-less cabin with six other people.
Having said that, some night train services remain in good health. The U.K.’s London to Scotland sleepers looked set to disappear entirely in 1995, but have since been revived as a separate company that performs well, charging higher prices than in France and offering one- and two-person berths. France has declared itself open to offers from private companies to run services like these, so it’s not impossible that night trains could be resurrected in a more expensive, and possibly slightly more luxurious form. But as a standard component of a regular national train service, the days of even France’s remaining night trains are probably numbered.