Officially, the government and the SNCF welcome the relaunch of night trains in France. In reality, the SNCF still does not believe in it and the State is proposing a minimum investment framework.

At the end of May, the Minister Delegate for Transport Clément Beaune proudly announced the creation of several new services by Intercités night trains linking the south-west of France and Paris, as well as a modification of certain links. And thus strengthen the current offer which has 7 night connections from two main lines (plus a Paris-Vienna with the Austrian ÖBB).

Enough to highlight the government’s strategy in this area: the relaunch of night trains in 2021 continues to meet strong demand for rail in general and for this type of inexpensive night travel in particular.

According to the SNCF, 700,000 people took a night train in 2022 against 350,000 a year earlier.

Map of the SNCF Intercités network, the night lines are in purple
Map of the SNCF Intercités network, the night lines are in purple © SNCF

“The Paris-Nice night train has been back for two years! This night train line was relaunched on May 21, 2021 by the Government. The night train is very popular because it is ecological, economical and practical. But the night train is also the charm of an exotic trip and exploration”, enthuses the minister.

An offer that pales in comparison

However, the French offer in this area pales in comparison to the proposals of our neighbors such as Austria or Switzerland, whether in terms of the number of lines, traffic, or even the rolling stock offered, more modern and comfortable than the Corails of the 1980s, which were scrapped then refreshed and put on the rails to provide some of these night connections.

Not everything is comparable because these countries, which are smaller in size, have a primarily cross-border approach for their night trains against a resolutely national offer for the SNCF. But still.

While the train is enjoying unprecedented enthusiasm, especially among the youngest with a view to modal shift, criticism is pouring out against the SNCF, accused at best of being timorous, at worst of doing nothing to develop this offer and not believe it. This is partly true, but not only.

Phantom profitability, relative success

Yesterday as today, the profitability and the economic model of night trains remain difficult to find for the SNCF. According to our information, the situation is quite clear: a TGV seat can be sold 4.5 times a day, a couchette only once a day. Mathematical conclusion, a night train is 4.5 times less profitable than a TGV. “It’s not easy”, we whisper in high places at the SNCF.

The night train involves a lot of fixed costs in terms of rolling stock with trains immobilized during the day, which therefore makes the lines loss-making. Officially, SNCF says it is enthusiastic about night trains. In reality, we believe internally that it is an “impossible economic model” and we wonder what is the point of launching a product where “we lose money”.

“Politically, the SNCF cannot publicly share this observation given the buzz around night trains, but it is very skeptical as the model is fragile”, confirms a connoisseur of the file.

Especially since only the Paris-Nice link is full, and still… According to our information, the operator observes above all a significant filling during the holidays or weekends, at best 20 to 30 days a year. 170,000 people used this line last year.

The State proposes a minimum framework

Overall, this relative success is far from being able to balance the model. How to finance it outside these periods? So why embark on this adventure of night trains?

The SNCF is in fact responding to an order from the State within the framework of the TETs (territorial balance trains) which are subsidized by public money, like the Intercités trains (unlike the TGVs which are not not subsidized). Basically, the State is the principal and the funder. The SNCF, it runs.

The debrief: Night trains, a gimmick?  - 05/21
The debrief: Night trains, a gimmick? – 05/21

If the executive puts forward its incentive policy for these night trains, it actually proposes a minimum development framework.

As a source familiar with the matter explains to us, it is the State which sets and pays the budget envelope (100 million euros via the France Relance plan), the line or lines to reopen and the type of train which will circulate. The SNCF fits strictly within this framework, no more, no less, without spending a single euro.

Lack of ambition for trains

Concretely, the choice of such axis or the use of old Corail trains to be modernized (instead of issuing a call for tenders for new equipment), these are the decisions of the client as the organizing authority.

Choices which illustrate a certain lack of ambition, both for the destinations and for the equipment, even if, as we know, the choice of new equipment is extremely expensive and time-consuming: the very strong demand in Europe, which creates shortages sleeping cars for example.

The choice was to quickly refresh delisted cars (for Paris-Nice), and to renovate other trains more thoroughly (recovering of berths, installation of WiFi on board, installation of individual power outlets, LED lighting applied to the entrance to the corridors) for the other and future connections. This renovation program is nearing completion.

The SNCF does not seek to go further

We could then say that the SNCF, always ready to make you prefer the train, puts pressure on its sole shareholder to develop the offer or change the rules of the game in order to obtain more, and do better.

In reality, the carrier is content with this minimal framework. Clearly, the SNCF would never have invested alone in night trains, without a state subsidy, the risk being deemed too high.

The feeling in the direction of the SNCF is to favor the purchase of TGV, but if the State believes in it, no problem, it is he who pays. And according to our information, there is no reason to expect a change of strategy on the part of the State in this matter.

“The SNCF does strictly what is asked of it. It renovates and tinkers with old, it is paid for by the State, it has no choice. As a result, the customer experience is not terrible”, abounds a connoisseur of the file.

SNCF: interior night lines envisaged
SNCF: interior night lines envisaged © Ministry of Ecological Transition

It will therefore be necessary to do a lot with few means. Nearly 10 night train lines “could see the light of day by 2030”, advances the government which recognizes that it is necessary “to find a viable economic model in the long term”.

What future for night lines?

In the medium to long term, one can indeed wonder about the sustainability of this framework. According to experts, salvation may come through more frequencies, a (much) better customer experience and/or a diversification of classes on board. But in any case, it will require sustainable and costly funding. Europe could put its hand in its pocket.

The arrival of private players as part of the opening up to competition, with a breakthrough offer like Midnight Train could change the situation. But access to the market is constrained by certain imperatives, in particular the many night works on the network which mechanically reduce the possibilities of movement for trains. And high toll prices. Not sure that many private actors are embarking on this adventure.

The question is therefore to know until when the State will bear the operating losses of these lines. However, going back would be politically very delicate for the State in terms of land use planning, image and ecological transition.

Olivier Chicheportiche Journalist BFM Business