January 23, 2022

the long road to profitability

After Paris-Nice, the SNCF is relaunching its night trains this Sunday between the capital and Lourdes via Tarbes, is back in service. Despite esteemed success, there will still be a long way to go to return to profitability.

Almost seven months after the reopening of the night line between Paris and Nice, the SNCF is relaunching the Paris-Lourdes link via Tarbes as planned. The first departure will take place this Sunday from the Gare d’Austerlitz in the presence of its CEO.

The government asked the SNCF to reopen a total of dozens of night connections by 2030. And Prime Minister Jean Castex recently indicated that the next on the list would be Paris-Aurillac. Without specifying on what date, for the moment.

After their virtual abandonment several years ago (2017 for the connection to Nice) for lack of attendance and profitability (lack of investment also …), can night trains really establish themselves as an alternative to the plane, the car and the TGV?

The good moment

The executive wants to believe it. And put resources into it. As part of the ecological transition and to meet strong demand from certain travelers (cost, carbon footprint, etc.), Emmanuel Macron has promised to focus on nighttime rail connections. 100 million euros are allocated to this objective.

“We have a lot of ambition for night trains in France”, said in 2020 the Minister for Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, promising “a policy of promotion and revitalization” of this mode of transport.

But if the night train attracts again (at least for the moment), there will still be a long way to go to return to profitability. If that’s a goal …

“Excellent sales” says SNCF

If the night train has long conveyed a backward-looking, out-of-date image compared to the all-powerful TGV or low-cost airlines in a society where every minute counts, the current context is a game-changer.

Ecological considerations, the desire for more and more travelers to limit their carbon footprint, especially young people and companies, slow travel which consists of taking your time are all stars that are aligned for the SNCF.

Asked by BFM Business, the national company does not yet give figures for frequentation of the Paris-Nice line but evokes “sales (which) are generally excellent, especially for the next Christmas holidays (several trains already full)”.

The operator stresses that “30% of travelers are under 25” and that “one in two travelers is a new customer”, proof, in both cases, that there is a certain craze for overnight travel, particularly among young people.

“The reasons for travel are mainly leisure (83%) and with strong tourist seasonality, the offer to Tarbes and Lourdes should therefore meet with some success”, adds the SNCF.

A double-edged observation: because if the attendance is mainly during the holidays, how to finance the model outside these periods? Especially since the night train still suffers from many handicaps.

A still undersized offer

For the moment, the operational night network (Paris-Nice, Paris-Lourdes and Paris-Briançon as well as Paris-Rodez-Cerbère which survived the closures) is too small to hope for any profitability.

As Arnaud Aymé, transport expert at Sia Partners, underlines: “The night train involves a lot of fixed costs in terms of rolling stock, with trains immobilized during the day in particular, which makes the lines in deficit. To reduce costs , you need a network logic to maximize the use of the equipment, ”he explains to BFM Business.

“It must be said that in 2030, there will be x long distance night lines (international routes) each with a seasonality for an effect of abundance of offers. This park could be used all year round since each line is more or less used depending on the time of the year “, continues the expert. We are still far from it …

Widening the target can also improve train filling. “Why not imagine addressing sports clubs, associations, all those who are used to taking night buses”, slips Arnaud Aymé.

The comfort of the trains in circulation is also a problem. To go quickly, the SNCF has put back into circulation cars which date back more than thirty years, while content to refresh them slightly.

“It will be necessary to have a good customer experience if we want to perpetuate these connections. We can assume that consumer expectations are a little higher than twenty or thirty years ago”, explains to AFP, François Guénard, railway expert at the Roland Berger firm.

The French trains are really poor compared to the Austrian night trains, better equipped and whose level of comfort varies according to the chosen class, the more expensive tickets giving access to compartments equipped with real beds. The roughness of the SNCF sleeper cars is likely to disappoint.

Jean Castex aboard the Paris-Nice night train, May 20, 2021.
Jean Castex aboard the Paris-Nice night train, May 20, 2021 © ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT / AFP
New ÖBB sleeper train
New ÖBB sleeper train © Siemens

But hopes in the medium to long term

However, the State has put 100 million euros on the table for night trains, half of which is devoted to their renovation. This modernization began in the Technocentre SNCF in Périgueux in Dordogne, which employs around 500 people. This envelope will be schematically divided into two expenses.

The aim is to restore old sleeper cars to roadworthiness without making any major improvements. The renovation is limited to the essentials. These are the cars that circulate between Paris and Nice. The most demanding of travelers will be disappointed. How do you accept having to go down the hall to find an electrical outlet?

But the SNCF plans to renovate other cars more thoroughly by improving soundproofing, installing individual outlets and wifi, and renovating the sanitary facilities. Which obviously takes more time.

Still, it will be necessary to buy new reliable and comfortable cars if the government wants, as it intends, to open a dozen night train lines by 2030.

“We will have to go very quickly”, judges the director of Voyages SNCF, Alain Krakovitch. “But the acquisition of new equipment will take time”, points out expert François Guénard. And will be very expensive for the SNCF and the State which will cover the operating losses of these lines. Until when?

Europe’s contribution

Despite everything, the network remains the central key to the success of French night trains. In addition to the opening of new domestic lines, SNCF will also be able to count on international lines in collaboration with other operators.

The Paris-Vienne will leave on December 13 with three comfort classes including sleeping cars equipped with showers. The trainsets used will be those of ÖBB, the Austrian rail operator, manufactured by Siemens (Nightjet) which offer a higher level of comfort.

Map of new European night trains
Map of new European night trains © SNCF

We can therefore travel in a seated position, in a bunk (4 to 6 people per cabin, shower room in the car, breakfast offered) or in a sleeping car (one to three people per cabin equipped with a sink or even a shower / toilet. for the deluxe version, breakfast à la carte, welcome-pack …)

And this link will not be the only one since the French, German, Austrian and Swiss rail carriers (SNCF, DB, OBB and CFF) have announced new long-distance cross-border night connections in the coming years.

Indispensable public support

Namely: Zürich-Cologne-Amsterdam and Zurich-Rome in 2022, Vienna-Berlin-Brussels and Vienna-Berlin-Brussels-Paris in 2023, then Zurich-Barcelona in 2024.

If the railway operators count on synergies and economies of scale to carry out this project, “public financial support will undoubtedly be essential to support the economic model of these night offers” insist the partners, support which does not has not been specified to date … Without public funding, can these lines be launched?

Olivier Chicheportiche BFM Business journalist