Emmanuelle Ducros 08:55, December 11, 2023

Every morning after the 8:30 a.m. news, Emmanuelle Ducros unveils her "Journey into Absurdity" to listeners, from Monday to Thursday.

A little over an hour ago, at 7:30 a.m., the Paris-Aurillac night train, which left yesterday evening from the Gare d'Austerlitz, arrived at its terminus. A small event.

This night-time link, which connects Paris to Cantal in 12 hours, with sleeper cars, was cancelled in 2003. Disappeared, like most night trains in France. Now it's back on track. Tonight, another night line will reopen: Paris-Berlin.

The relaunch of these night trains was decided in 2021, when there were only two lines left in France: Paris-Rodez/Latour-de-Carol/Cerbère and Paris-Briançon - and still not all year round. There are now about ten of them for the national territory.

These night trains are in tune with the times.

They have advantages, it's true, even if it's quite far from the Orient Express. They are slow but affordable, the carbon footprint is excellent. They are also a good way to open up underserved regions that do not have access to the TGV or the plane – typically Cantal. They are often an inexpensive alternative to the car. To borrow a slogan from 1975 by the SNCF, during the crazy years of the sleeper train: to travel happily, travel lying down.

But these trains cost a fortune.

Yes, that's the other side of the coin. For every euro spent in public money on the lines that have survived, such as Paris Briançon, there are two euros in charges. It's understandable that it's not profitable: a berth on a night train is twice as much space as on a normal train, it can only be sold once a day at best, compared to four times for a TGV seat. All this, for fixed costs, track maintenance, train path, personnel, which are the same as on a conventional train. The price of a seat for the traveller is not very high, between 19 and 39 euros for the Paris-Aurillac... This is far from covering the costs, which are enormous, because they are spread over very few places

Can we do better?

Yes. But that assumes a supply shock, as they say. More service, more marketing. But also more regular frequencies to create habit, and a whole coherent network. For the time being, the Paris-Aurillac is all weekends and school holidays. Insufficient. There is talk of it becoming a daily in 2024.

Basically: a balance must be found between the occupancy rate of the trains, i.e. not running them almost empty, and the maximum amortisation of the equipment, by going further, by making it rotate more times, by pooling the maintenance of more lines.

Quite a challenge.

Unless the State, which has the management of these regional balance trains, unlike the TGV, considers them as a public service and treats them as such, by committing to compensate the SNCF for their inevitable deficit. It's a choice. He defends himself, but you have to do it with full knowledge of the facts.