If you’ve ever travelled on an overnight train, you’ll be familiar with that tingle of excitement. The train has something of the magic carpet about it, transporting you to your destination many miles away, where you will wake up.
In the case of skiers, a specific practical benefit adds to this excitement: by travelling overnight, they get extra time on the slopes, skiing on their day of arrival and the day of departure.
I’ve travelled this way lots of times myself, with friends. It’s a really social way to travel, and the laughs and giggles we’ve had on the way are uncountable. So too are the extra ski runs we’ve had – achieved by arriving first thing and skiing all day on quiet slopes, whilst most other skiers are still on their way by car, plane or daytime train.
But now, these overnight journeys are under threat. The French State Department of Transport, which owns the national rail operator, SNCF, has announced that unless a viable proposal from a train company is received by July 1, all but two of the night train routes from Paris will be axed – more than 100 years after they first ran.
The French Government and SNCF say that the services are too expensive to run and not as popular as they used to be. But rail experts strongly disagree: most of the costs apply to the tracks (shared by daytime and overnight trains) and not the actual overnight trains themselves.
Poor marketing of the overnight services by the train companies means that many skiers are unaware or have difficultly finding out about them; and consistently the trains go on sale later than they are supposed to, much to the frustration of skiers.
Incredibly, sleeper train routes to destinations all over France are due to be axed, including Paris to Bourg St Maurice and Paris to St Gervais – between them serving more than 20 top French resorts (see list below). The only ski route to be kept running will be Paris to Briançon, which serves Montgenevre and Serre Chevalier, amongst others. While British skiers will still be able to take the direct overnight Eurostar Ski Train from London to Bourg St Maurice, this service only has seats, not flat beds.
Ski resorts are, naturally, concerned. “Travelling by overnight train makes sense for skiers – because it gives them extra days on the slopes,” says Gregory Guzzo, director of the Val Thorens Tourist Office. “It’s something we have always encouraged, particularly as we have a huge area with 600km of linked slopes to explore. We are hoping that a solution can be found to keep these trains running for years to come.”
Meanwhile, many experts in rail travel are perplexed by the decision to end these overnight services. “If these sleeper trains are discontinued the industry as a whole doesn’t escape the track charges,” says Mark Smith, founder of independent rail guide The Man in Seat Sixty-One. “And these are non-escapable costs and shouldn’t really be included as a cost for running the train. The track access costs for signalling, maintenance and staff remain exactly the same in total, so there isn’t actually going to be any saving.”
It’s not as if the trains are particularly expensive to run, Smith says. “These overnight trains are owned by SNCF,” Smith says. “They have a few more years’ life in them yet, because they are only used at relatively low speeds once a day. So really, all you need to do is to put a locomotive on the front and pay for a driver and conductor, and the bed linen and cleaning and you’re on your way. Plus, these trains are popular and run well-filled, certainly on the busier nights of the week.”
If plans to cancel the trains go ahead, the following resorts would no longer be served by sleeper trains from Paris: Avoriaz, Brides les Bains, Courchevel, Flaine, La Clusaz, La Plagne, La Rosiere, La Tania, Le Grand Bornand, Les Arcs, Les Carroz, Les Contamines, Les Gets, Les Menuires, Megeve, Meribel, Morillon, Morzine, Peisey-Vallandry, Sainte Foy, Samoens, St Gervais, St Martin de Belleville, Tignes, Val d’Isere, Val Thorens and Valmorel.
It seems mad that trains that are full on many nights could be cancelled. But it’s also a failure to see the bigger picture: there is so much romance about the idea of overnight train travel – and this draws people to train travel generally. One could call it the ‘Orient Express’ effect. Take these overnight services away, and some of the magic dies.
When you get on board an overnight train Paris-bound for the Alps, you can see and feel the excitement amongst skiers – of all ages. For children these trains are especially thrilling, and you can see the delight on their beaming faces. Like thousands of skiers and travellers, I’d be gutted if these services were scrapped – and I’m determined to do whatever I can to save them.
So I’ve created a petition to help save them: Save the French Sleeper Trains.
I’ve also made this one-minute film to highlight what a good way of travelling this was. The film is unusual: two teddy bears – originally found in a charity shop in West Hampstead – make their way from London to the Alps, taking a Eurostar to Paris and then a sleeper train from there. They do, of course, get to ski!
If enough people make clear that they want these trains to stay, the overnight services might be saved. This has happened before with other services. And if teddy bears can ski, anything is possible.
Daniel Elkan is the founder of Snowcarbon, an independent guide to travelling to the Alps by train. Also see his posts on Ten Train Journeys to The Alps, The Useful Guide to Travelling to The French Alps by Train, and Ten Tips for a Successful Train Journey to The Alps.