Berlin or Aurillac? Night train fans have, this month of December, the choice between two additional destinations. Proof, perhaps, of a return to favor for this mode of transport. To launch its Paris-Berlin, inaugurated on Monday 11, the SNCF joined forces with the German Deutsche Bahn and the Austrian railways (ÖBB), which supply the rolling stock. On board, three levels of comfort: two or three-seater cabins, sleeper wagons, wagons equipped with reclining chairs, with a call price of €29.90.
Currently, only three return trips per week are planned. Departure from Eastern Station on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 7:12 p.m., arriving the next day in Berlin at 8:26 a.m. With stops in Strasbourg (where part of the train will detach to branch off towards Vienna), Frankfurt, Erfurt and Halle. “For the operation of the train on the French part, the State will inject around ten million euros per year”specifies the entourage of Clément Beaune, Minister for Transport.
The State will also subsidize Paris-Aurillac to the tune of 3 million euros per year. This night train, stopped twenty years ago, will once again operate the connection between the capital and Cantal from Sunday December 10. Again, with three levels of comfort: first class berth, second class berth and reclining seat.
The distance may be modest, only 437 km, but in the best case scenario it takes almost 6 hours by train to cover it. “It’s half a day wasted, observes Jean Lenoir, member of the National Federation of Transport User Associations (Fnaut). Also, the night train has a real card to play.»
“A duty of territorial equity”
Certainly, the operation of this line promises to be unprofitable. “But the same goes for the air connection, from the small Aurillac airport. Furthermore, no one would agree to board a bus for a business trip. » For Jean Lenoir, relaunching this night train is “a duty of territorial equity”.
It is indeed in a logic of territorial planning but also of decarbonization that the plan to revive night trains launched in person in 2021 by Prime Minister Jean Castex, endowed with 100 million euros (for equipment and the modernization of stations, for example with the installation of showers). The year 2021 saw the return of Paris-Tarbes and Paris-Nice. And by 2030, France should have ten internal lines, compared to six so far.
However, this activity is marginal for the SNCF, mainly focused on high speed and TER trains, where competition is rife. Its management has real doubts about the economic model. “A night train seat is only sold once a day, whereas a TGV seat is often sold four times with two round trips, or even more on a low-cost Ouigo train which continues rotations on a wide time slot”, we suggest to the SNCF.
The Austrian company firmly believes in it
However, there is a national company in Europe that believes in it: ÖBB operates 21 lines, including 20 international, mainly to Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Austrian Railways has ordered 33 trains and hopes to double its passenger numbers to 3 million per year by 2030. “On journeys of 1,000 or 1,200 kilometers, the night train can replace the plane”insists its spokesperson Bernhard Rieder.
This is also the bet that the travel site Evaneos is making, which encourages its customers to take this mode of transport to get to their destination. “The journey then becomes an integral part of the travel experience”praises Laurent de Chorivit, co-general director.
Midnight Trains, the promise of real “hotels on wheels”
“But we must not ask travelers to get off the plane to get into a carriage without age or comfort”, warns Adrien Aumont, co-founder of Midnight Trains. His “young shoot” (or start-up), busy building up his round of funding, intends to offer “real hotels on wheels, with cabins for one, two or four people, some including showers and toilets, in order to preserve privacy”.
Midnight Trains hopes to provide a Paris-Venice service from 2025, abandoned by the private operator Thello during Covid. Other destinations should follow, such as Barcelona, Madrid, Florence and even Nice, a successful line on which this Little Thumb would then face the giant SNCF.
“The train and the night were made to meet”
Clive Lammingauthor and rail historian
“God created the night, man created the train. The train and the night were made to meet! In its early days, the train almost always made part of its journey at night because the slightest journey required a lot of time. And, unlike the stagecoach, it could drive in the dark because it was guided by the rails. Obviously, things have changed a lot, with high speed and also competition from cars, planes and long-distance coaches. But today we are seeing a resurgence of the night train, for reasons that have a lot to do with saving time and money. We save ourselves a night in a hotel and arrive early in the morning, ready to work, visit or put on skis, as in the case of Paris-Briançon. »
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