Is there a French market for upmarket night trains ?

Yvan Lefranc-Morin of Flixbus has announced that its is planning to restart a night line from Paris to Nice in 2021 under its Flixtrain brand. Paris-Nice was once a flagship night train which @SNCF, the French national public rail company, first mismanaged then eventually abandoned in 2017 as part of a general retreat from its night lines.

So it is positive news that an entirely market-driven operation is re-entering the market : it will add diversity and a new comfort-price point to the important travel market between France and the large city of the Côte d’Azur. It also doesn’t take too much imagination to think that Flixtrain will succeed, as Paris-Nice is within the idealized « sweet spot » for night train travel, estimated by a 2017 report by the European Parliament to be 8-10 hour.

A Flixtrain in Germany

It is too early to tell what the Flixtrain offer will look like. But the DNA of the Flix line of services, beginning with Flixbus, has so far been to cater to the « money-poor / time-rich » segment of the market, through keen pricing and so-so service.

This leaves us perhaps waiting for a true, full-service, replacement of the Train Bleu, which in its (long-gone) heyday travelled all the way from Calais to Nice, had a sleeper-compartment-only configuration and a famed bar, complete with piano and celebrities.

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Nice idea (no pun intended), but where is the market ?

A upscale type of night train service need not be Flixbus-cheap. But neither should it aim to be, because night trains are not simply competing on the transport market, but are also a play on the hospitality market. A smart night train would, theoretically, be competing with the combination of a flight, a taxi ride and a night at a 4*-hotel on the Riviera (with a median price of 100 € in low season, 150 € in mid-season and 250+ € in the summer).

Going one better, one can’t help noticing that there are 5* hotels in both Paris and Nice which happily charge upwards of an euro a minute for a bed. And at the very pinnacle of the market, perhaps with the help of a sprinkling of bygone glamour, a luxury night service might even become be a Veblen good, for which desirability increases with price.

Luxury on wheels : tough to sell, tougher to deliver

As a rule, luxury, or even simply upmarket, isn’t easy to deliver : it requires a service flow attuned to the high expectations of the target customer base, and all within the constricted environment of a rail carriage. Most of my night experiences have been a letdown, particulary in France, a country with no recent culture of proper sleeper car night services, only couchettes.

But, as it happens, the city of Nice is a rare exception to the generally shabby (and now mostly vanished) French night train scene : it is (as of 2019) served by an upmarket night train, which can serve as a testbed for some of our assumptions.

The RZD Russian Railways Moscow-Nice train was introduced in 2010 with well-appointed first-class sleeper cars. This night train always seemed to be a bit of an oddity in terms of origin-destination, the fondness of Russian oligarchs for the Riviera notwithstanding.

And indeed the RZD train seems to have been a hard sell : it is now down to one rotation per week. This is maybe because it takes all of 48 tedious hours (versus a bit over 4 hours by direct plane) and provides little by way of real glamour. Oh, and it also requires to have a Belarus transit visa.

Upmarket night trains: the poll is out on this one

The rationale for resurrecting commercially viable upmarket or semi-luxury night trains within France hasn’t yet been found, and may never be. It will depend on factors such as :

  • identifying decent economic drivers, especially origin-destination combinations to profitably fill the equivalent of 200-300 pax per trip, in a sector never really renowned for its ability to mint money.
  • targeting a solvent market, presumably leisure-oriented yet not price-sensitive. This would mean reigniting interest from a variety of niche segments such as tourists away from their home base on a « grand tour » of Europe (US, Asian)
  • and perhaps finding a mix with other offers : Flixbus-style low-cost recliners, reintroducing « auto-train », or perhaps even mixing freight and passenger loads ?

So in a nutshell, upmarket night trains in France have not conclusively been proven impossible. But much remains to be done to prove there is a viable concept.

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Status is onlineFionn HallemanLeader of spatial and mobility projects | Transforming mobility and travel | Harnessing expertise, technology and communityPublished • 2y6 articlesUpmarket night trains in France : the optimists will say they have « not yet conclusively proven impossible ». The pessimists have given up long ago. Who is right ? True, Thello has a niche toehold between France and Italy and yes, Yvan Lefranc-Morin has annouced that FlixBus will be reentering a market all but abandoned by SNCF but with a single-class, low-cost offering. Is that the end of that ? hashtag#nighttrains