Paris-Berlin, Paris-Vienne, Paris-Tarbes... Night trains resume service

Paris-Berlin, Paris-Vienne, Paris-Tarbes… Night trains resume service

After two decades at a standstill, night trains have resumed service in France and beyond our borders. Due to a lack of sufficient frequency, profitability is not (yet) assured, but travelers are there.

Families with their beloved little ones, students with headphones screwed into their ears, retired couples… On this chilly Friday evening, around 8 p.m., travelers parade on platform number 3 of Austerlitz station, in Paris. They are preparing to spend the night on the tracks. Having just arrived from Orléans (Loiret) where he works, Alexandre, in his thirties, slips: “The TGV was too early for me to catch it. The night train proved to be the most practical way to arrive in Cannes on Saturday morning. » Suitcase and small backpack in hand, Laurence is also preparing to climb into Intercités 5781: “The day train takes five and a half hours to reach Antibes. I'm bored as hell there. There, I fall asleep and I don’t see the time passing,” explains the sixty-year-old.

Falling asleep in the City of Lights and waking up on the Côte d'Azur has been possible again since May 2021. After more than three years of shutdown, the line reopened under the leadership of the former Minister of Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari. Others followed: Paris-Tarbes and Paris-Vienne in 2021, Paris-Aurillac and Paris-Berlin in December 2023. A real about-face after decades of service reduction.

Many passengers first seek to optimize their time, but many of them are seduced by the special atmosphere of night trips. “The excitement of the night train has never left me,” confides Aude, 50 years old and almost as many years of traveling in a sleeping car to the snow-covered peaks. “The mountains begin for me at the station, as soon as I see “Paris-Briançon” displayed on the departure board. It's magical to cross France while sleeping. » Even if she recognizes that “sleep is necessarily very broken”, the Parisian journalist always favors the Intercités at night, because “the daytime train turns out to be much less friendly and the attitude of the passengers more consumerist”. A student from Lyon, Julien remembers conversations late into the night with his bunk neighbors. “The absence of intimacy creates a bond,” confirms Ariane, who regularly uses the line to reach Paris, where she works, at her home in Briançon (Hautes-Alpes).

A little air of adventure

The youngest are not left out. “It’s a party for the children,” Audrey smiles. At 8 and 11 years old, mine love meeting other little ones in their pajamas in the hallways. » For this Breton manager of ecotourism accommodation, a spirit of adventure, practical and ecological arguments tip the scales: “We choose our holiday destinations based on the existence of a night train. » Besides the Alps, the family has already reached Italy from Brittany, aboard a bus, a TGV, a night train and a TER. “The night train has proven to be very economical where the TGV weighs down the bill,” compares Audrey. But be careful, prices can soar during school holidays due to demand.

From seat to berth

This enthusiasm is reflected in figures: thus, the occupancy rate is around 80%. The expansion of the offer between 2021 and 2023 was followed by a clear increase in the number of travelers. In 2023, 780,000 of them took an Intercités at night in France, compared to 700,000 in 2022 and 350,000 in 2019. This renewed interest is part of an ecological awareness among the French accentuated by the Covid-19 pandemic. “In less than ten years, mobility practices have evolved towards the slowest, most ecological”, analyzes Iwan Le Clec’h, one of the coordinators of the collective Oui au train de nuit!, who puts forward two factors favorable to rail: “There are fewer B permit holders in town. As for the novelty effect of TGV lines and cheap air travel, it is decreasing,” However, due to lack of sufficient frequency, night trains are not profitable.

Could it be that old cars make the best trips? To get its night Intercités back on track, the State has invested 91 million euros to renovate cars that are already well advanced in age. Almost the entire park has been renovated, in particular to meet today's comfort requirements. For example, Wi-Fi and electrical outlets have been installed. “Previously, we had big rough red or green blankets and sheets,” remembers Aude. Now they are duvets, more practical and warmer. » The fifty-year-old traveled as a child in comfortable sleeping cars, which no longer exist. The SNCF now markets three different classes: that with reclining seats (from €19), the second class where six passengers travel per compartment (from €29), and the first or latter accommodate four berths (from €29). of €39). The company provides customers with berths, pillows, duvets, earplugs, blindfolds, tissues and refreshing wipes.

Still a long way to go

Today, like yesterday, the experience repeats itself. “For the bunks, you have to be either at the bottom or at the top,” advises Ariane. “In the middle, we don't have space to put our things and we see everyone. Upstairs, we have space at the headboard, the heating and light buttons are next to it and we feel more isolated,” explains the thirty-year-old, who activates the “single lady” option each time she makes a reservation. » to be sure to travel in a 100% female car. “First class offers better comfort. You can sit on your berth without bending your head, and it is also wider,” adds Julien, who travels between Paris and Carmaux (Tarn) to visit his grandparents.

Despite their renovation, the Intercités de nuit do not offer a bar car. The catering offer is limited to snacks. It is therefore better to plan ahead… Because, beyond rudimentary comfort, the main downside is delays of several hours, last minute cancellations, changes in timetables or services. “At Christmas I was four and a half hours late; the day before, the train had arrived seven hours after the scheduled time; the next day, it was deleted,” relates Aude.

This glaring lack of reliability results from the obsolescence of the rolling stock and railway infrastructure. Well aware of the handicap, the State has planned to renew the cars by 2030. In the meantime, travelers are philosophical: “I complained a lot about the delays, but I know there are problems on the day train too,” puts Aude into perspective. As for Ariane, although she has decided to reduce her number of monthly return trips, she assures that she remains faithful to this mode of transport: “Despite all the worries, I always enjoy taking the night train. »

Night connections

  • Yesterday: France has experienced a very dense network of night trains, from Paris but also between regions. With the democratization of the car, the TGV and air transport, the offer was reduced in the 1980s. In 2016, only two connections remained (the Pyrenees and the Alps)
  • Today: Since the end of 2023, France has ten terminals accessible by night trains, but only from Paris. Eight nationals*: Aurillac, Albi, Briançon, Cerbère, Latour-de-Carol, Nice, Tarbes, Toulouse (There are no longer any cross lines); and two international ones: Vienna (Austria) and Berlin (Germany).
  • Tomorrow: From December 2024, the Paris-Aurillac should switch to a daily schedule, compared to two round trips per week today. The Paris-Vienna/Berlin could also become daily during the last quarter of 2024. At the end of the year, Lyon could be served by the Barcelona-Zürich line, carried by the Austrian company OBB, while the company European Sleepers is studying the operation of an Amsterdam-Barcelona route, via Lille (North), Avignon (Vaucluse), Montpellier (Hérault) and Perpignan (Pyrénées-Orientales). Waiting for the French company Midnight Trains to relaunch a Paris-Venice (Italy) route in 2026?


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