Goodnight to sleeper trains?

France is on the brink of closing many of its sleeper train services. We shouldn’t let this happen.

Just what is it people love so much about overnight rail travel? The idea of a journey on a sleeper train has a certain frisson that makes even adults regress to childlike excitement. When you work in travel, this is a beautiful thing to witness.

Sleeper trains are - in a way - the closest thing to the magic carpets that we read about as children. You get on at one place, fall asleep (mostly) and then hours later you wake up in a faraway place (hopefully the place you wanted to be, assuming you boarded the right train).

Cinema has had an enduring romance with overnight rail travel, and in this turn has surely fuelled their romance. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint flirting in North by Northwest; Marylin Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot; Sean Connery wrestling S.P.E.C.T.R.E assassin Donald Grant in the couchette compartment of a night train in Turkey.

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But romantic as overnight journeys might be, there are practical benefits, too. Sleeper trains enable you to travel long distance and yet arrive first thing in the morning, refreshed. No other transport method can do this. And a combination of daytime and overnight trains can work beautifully together. Thousands of British skiers, for example, whiz from London to Paris on Eurostar trains in order to connect with sleeper trains bound for Alpine ski resorts.

Train trips create a fraction of the pollution of equivalent journeys by plane or car. What is more, because they run more slowly, overnight rail journeys require less energy than daytime train journeys to the same destination. It's the reason that a few years ago I launched a guide, www.snowcarbon.co.uk, to help more skiers find out about these enjoyable, sustainable travel options.

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However, sleeper-train travel in Europe is threatened. After more than 100 years of people travelling this way, journeys in France are now on the verge of coming to an abrupt end.  

This will be tragic for hundreds of thousands of travellers. France has an impressive network of sleeper train routes, which fan out from Paris in many directions. Head north-east and you can reach Strasbourg and Luxembourg; to the south, Marseille, Cannes and Nice; or south east, to Andorra in one direction and Biaritz another; and, in the Alps, more than 30 ski resorts are served by sleeper trains.

This rich tapestry of journeys is about to be ripped up by the French Government’s Department of Transport, which owns the national French rail carrier SNCF.  In the coming weeks, it will begin deciding on which routes to keep and which to discard, with current plans being to keep only the Paris-Briançon, and Paris-Rodez / Latour de Carol routes.

The Government blames the decision on the hefty subsidies of 100€ per passenger journey that it claims to pay. Overnight rail travel loses money, it says. But rail experts disagree, arguing that the subsidy figures are mostly for fixed track costs, not for the running of the trains, making it a zero-sum game: if you don’t collect track charges from sleeper train, then the daytime trains will have to pay more to compensate.

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“If these trains are discontinued the industry as a whole doesn’t escape the track charges,” says Mark Smith, founder of rail-travel guide Seat 61. “And these are non-escapable costs and shouldn’t really be included as a cost for running the train. The track access costs for signalling, maintenance and staff remain exactly the same in total, so there isn’t actually going to be any saving.” 

And it’s not as if the trains are particularly expensive to run, Smith says. “These overnight trains are owned by SNCF,” Smith says. “They have a few more years life in them yet, because they are only used at relatively low speeds once a day. So really, all you need to do is to put a locomotive on the front and pay for a driver and conductor, bed linen and cleaning and you’re on your way. Plus, these trains are popular and run well-filled, certainly on the busier nights of the week.”

The French Government says that the trains are not as popular as they used to be. That might be the case, but in fact they are badly marketed by the train companies. For example, British skiers, who could connect with these trains easily from the UK by taking a Eurostar to Paris, have trouble finding out about schedules and services. The trains are frequently put on sale later than they are supposed to be, vexing those who are trying to book. And ski tour operators are all but prevented from promoting them by the lack of any kind of simple ticketing system that would allow them to create an overnight rail-ski package with these trains. 

On top of that, SNCF has barely bothered to upgrade anything about the trains. Although they are clean, and you can sleep on them, they lag behind in terms of comfort and quality. I recall only a few years ago that the train toilet had powdered soap and toilet paper so coarse that you could have used it to sand wood. 

But these train services are so well loved, it would be tragic if we lost them. I’ve created a petition to help people show support for overnight train travel. Petitions in the UK have saved overnight train travel in Britain before, such as on the London – Penzance route. Indeed, that service is now is enjoying a renaissance. Let’s hope we can help the French to do the same – and give sleeper services a bright future.


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