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Night trains: overnight rail travel getting back on track in France

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Macron announced France would "redevelop night trains" in his July 14th speech
Macron announced France would "redevelop night trains" in his July 14th speech   -   Copyright  Michael Sohn/AP
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French president Emmanuel Macron Bastille Day announcement included the promise to "redevelop night trains."

"It translates into savings and a reduction of CO2 emissions," he went on, during the televised interview on July 14.

Since the 1970s, France has steadily been moving away from sleeper trains and currently only operates two lines — between Paris and the southern cities of Briançon and Cerbère. In the early 2000s, about 67 overnight trains were timetabled.

This revival of interest is not unprecedented across Europe for night trains would offer a greener alternative to much-criticised internal flights. Let alone the "flygskam", or flight shaming, that is conquering France's neighbours.

France had long overlooked overnight trains for not being very profitable. When he was the minister of economy under former president François Hollande, Macron placed great emphasis on coaches at the expense of railway networks. Many small rail routes were closed in 2017.

It now seems that he is backtracking from his previous position, encouraged by the increasing demand for a sustainable, cleaner mobility.

Reinvigorating railways is among the proposals that the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat voted last month. It was convened in 2019 following the gilet jaunes movement and Macron pledged to follow through with their recommendations.

Secretary of State for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebarri said on French news channel LCI that the government has "great plans for night trains in France" and that they "are going to promote and revitalise them in the weeks and months to come".

A government report is expected to be presented to parliament by the end of the summer.

€1.5 billion is needed

"Our goal is to make the night train as interesting as the plane," explains Adrien from the French collective "Oui au train de nuit !" ("Yes to the night train!"), which was founded in 2016 after the government announced the closing of most of sleeper routes.

Beyond the environmental benefit, they firmly believe overnight trains can be handy and economical. "You can leave at 8 p.m. and arrive the following morning," Adrien says, which could save the traveller one night in a hotel.

For commuters, "night train and high-speed trains complement each other between cities more than 700 kilometres away" because it facilitates an earlier arrival without having to leave in the middle of the night "thanks to travelling while sleeping", their report argues.

The group values the necessary investments at €1.5 billion for the building of 15 new night train routes and for participating in 15 others across Europe.

How are other EU countries embracing overnight travel?

Last month, Transdev-owned operator Snälltåget announced their "plans to increase the cross-border night train services between Sweden and Germany in 2021" and disclosed a new direct sleeper train service between Sweden, Denmark and ski resorts in Austria.

The Czech company RegioJet inaugurated a new summer night train service linking five EU member states: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. They were the victim of their own success and had to increase the frequency of the trips. The operator also plans to start running overnight trains between Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland later this year.

Austrian-based railway company ÖBB is now considered as a pioneer in the night train business. "They proved this industry can be profitable," claims Adrien. They recently opened a new line operating between the North Sea island of Sylt and the Alpine city of Salzburg.

Advocates strongly believe night train can offer an alternative to flying and driving and that the EU would benefit from developing a large network, given it's Green Deal's commitments.