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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Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.