France’s night trains set to make a comeback

France's night trains, stripped down to just a few services in recent years, are set to make a comeback.

France's night trains set to make a comeback
Photo: AFP

The cost required to keep them running, coupled with the growth of high speed day trains and the popularity of budget airlines, meant that the era of the couchette and wagon lit was quietly fading into the night.

Key routes were cut and the intricate network of overnight routes across Europe was reduced to just a handful of services.

But increasing awareness among passengers and governments of the carbon footprint from air travel – coupled with shrinkage in the airline sector due to the coronavirus epidemic – means that night trains may be in line for an unexpected renaissance.

Austria, France and Sweden are among countries pressing for a return to night train travel that may yet see more of us tucking up for the night in a cosy wagon lit.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced in July the government would “redevelop” night trains as part of a campaign to reduce emissions.

Secretary of State for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said that overnight connections between Paris and the Mediterranean city of Nice, as well as with Tarbes in the Pyrenees, would be restored by 2022.

“I think there is a real demand,” said Christophe Fanichet, the chief executive of French rail operator SNCF's passenger arm SNCF Voyageurs.

He said there was in particular a “young population that is paying attention to carbon emissions” and is prepared to take a little more time to travel.

Overnight trains were cut one after another in France over the last years, hardly surprising in a country where the high-speed TGV now whisks passengers from Paris to Marseille in just over three hours.

Just two lines survive due to a lack of alternatives for passengers between Paris and Briancon in the Alps and Cerbere in the Pyrenees.

They cost the state €20 million to keep running annually, plus €30 million to renovate the trains.

Signs of a revival in overnight travel are even more apparent elsewhere in Europe, notably in Austria where state railway operator OBB has been blazing a trail for international services.

Another model for night trains is Sweden, the home of the concept of flygskam (flight shame) advocated by teen anti-global warming activist Greta Thunberg who won't take planes.

The government is planning to invest 400 million krona (€39 million) to relaunch daily connections between Stockholm and Hamburg and Malmo and Brussels by summer 2022.

But industry participants acknowledge there has to be a better solution than the standard six-person European sleeping couchette, which contains two sets of three bunk beds separated by a small gap.

This is all the more important in the era of the coronavirus, where few passengers will want to the spend the entire night in a confined space with potentially five complete strangers.

“We can't just say that we want night trains. We need to reinvent the night train,” said Fanichet of SNCF.

“We can't just have yesterday's night train again,” he added.

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France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).