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I hadn’t intended to sleep in a tiny enclosed space with three other men for eight hours during a pandemic.
But I wasn’t going to turn down a trip on one of France’s rare overnight train journeys. The Perpignan to Paris train was a relic of a bygone age. The red velvet bunk-beds first used in the 1980s were a little threadbare, the only place to charge a phone was beside the mirror in the corridor, and the bar I had been hoping for after a day of reporting was sadly missing. “Nope, there’s no food, not a thing.
You’ll just have to go to sleep,” said the conductor. Despite the bare bones offering on my trip, French night trains are making a comeback. After years of closures, lines are opening back up as the government adds railways to its armoury of weapons against climate change. My bunkmates and I diligently wore our masks for the first few hours. But when night came and the narrow beds forced a reasonable amount of tossing and turning, masks were soon lost to the depths of the sleeping bags provided by SNCF, France’s national train company.
The Paris-Perpignan line is one of the few to have been maintained. Others, like Paris to Nice, were closed because they weren’t making enough money. A Paris to Venice sleeper train run by the Italian state rail company, Trenitalia, made its final voyage in 2020. “The economics of sleeper trains are more difficult than almost any other type of train,” says Mark Smith, a former rail regulator who runs the website The Man in Seat 61.
The carriages are more expensive to build, they carry fewer people and run less regularly. Due to European competition rules forcing track and rail operators to separate, it now costs money to use tracks so every trip has to be justified. Smith says that’s why “night trains had a hard time when budget airlines came on the scene”, pushing down the cost of travel in Europe. Sleeper trains can be profitable. Austrian Railways (ÖBB) has managed it, but SNCF is nowhere near replicating its success. My one-way first-class ticket was €184. According to a 2015 report by the French government, “the public subsidy per passenger [on night trains] is set at very high levels for each journey, levels above €100”.
Subsidies for regular class train tickets on daytime rail services are 30 per cent on average, and amount to nearly 70 per cent for the slower moving regional train network, according to Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, the French minister of transport. But France’s government is trying to push rail as an answer to climate change, including banning flights for journeys that can be made by train in less than two-and-a-half hours. Night trains are returning as part of this drive. The Paris to Nice service has reopened and more routes are on the way.
“It’s not just rhetoric . . . half of our ministry’s budget here goes on rail,” says Djebbari. According to him, between 2020 and 2030 France will invest €75bn in the rail sector. Of this, €35bn will cover debt absorbed as part of a rail reform package agreed in 2018, but €100m will go towards night trains, with €69m to be spent on upgrading the rolling stock. Demand for night trains doesn’t appear to be a problem, if the price is right. SNCF says 65,000 sleeper tickets have been sold for this summer, including 20,000 on the Paris to Nice line. But if the company wants to reduce the subsidies, it may have to start offering a better service, with more privacy.
Most people do not expect to share a cabin with strangers and there is growing demand for a hotel experience on night-trains. ÖBB, for example, is moving towards “mini-suites” in their multi-person carriages, which are essentially private compartments built into the cars. Cocooned with my cabin-mates near midnight somewhere in the centre of France, I wasn’t at all sure I cared. There is something satisfying about travelling in a carriage and sleeping in a bed built decades ago.
It is a reminder that, with trains at least, we may have gone backwards in search of progress and given up a way of travelling that was simply better than what replaced it. I would very much like to get it back.
This article first appeared on www.ft.com
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