All you need to know about ski holidays by train

Goodnight to (most) sleepers?

Tue 26 July, 2016

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Daniel Elkan

It would seem on the surface, to be bad news:  The French Ministry of Transport (which owns SNCF) has decided that barring an exceptional offer, by October 1st they will decide to stop running sleeper trains on most of the routes in France, including those to the Alps.

The ski routes that will no longer run are:

Paris - Moutiers, Aime, Landry and Bourg St Maurice
Paris - Annecy, Cluses, Sallanches and St Gervais

Resorts no longer served by these 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, Manigold, Megeve, Meribel, Morillon, Morzine, Peisey-Vallandry, Sainte Foy, Samoens, St Gervais, St Martin de Belleville, Tignes, Val d'Isere, Val Thorens and Valmorel.

The routes that remains are:

Paris - Briancon
Key resorts still served by sleeper trains from Paris: Montgenevre, Serre Chevalier

Paris - Rodez/Latour-de-Carol
Key resorts served: (in Andorra) Pas de la Casa, Soldeu

So are these sleeper trains being cut?  The French Ministry of Transport cites declining demand, the need for an improved customer experience and the subsidies that it has to pay for night trains.  Let's take these in turn.

Declining demand?  The statistics that it sites (20% decline since 2011) applies to all the routes, not the ski routes.  Many of these routes ran every night.  Weekend trains remained popular with skiers, and were full (anectodal evidence).  So why not continue to run them for skiers at weekends? But on top of that, to blame a 'decline in demand' when SNCF's definition of marketing the sleeper train seemed to consist simply of putting them on sale later than they were supposed to, it disingenious, to say the least.  It's the equivalent to that scene - I can't remember the film - where the corrupt American policeman break the car headlight with his baton and then steps back and sucks his teeth:  'Ooh, let's see now.  In this state, a broken headlamp is a $50 fine..'.  

Services needed upgrading?  Couldn't agree more. However, the carriages were clean, if not glamourous and could have done with more luggage space. However, the trains ran on time, there was a nice ambience and you could get a good night's sleep before spending extra time on the slopes.  Rather a train that could do with an upgrade, than no train at all.  Which is what, on key routes, we are left with.

Subsidies? Not according to rail experts, such as Mark Smith, founder of the excellent Seat 61. “It’s a fiction,” says Mark Smith, founder of rail-travel guide Seat 61. “If these trains are discontinued the industry as a whole doesn’t escape the track charges. 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.”

And it’s not as if the trains are particularly expensive to run. “These overnight trains are owned by SNCF,” Smith says. “They have a few more years' life in them yet, because they’re 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, 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.”

The future - a big ray of hope..

There is hope that these services, can be saved. If resorts work together they could charter-hire the trains from SNCF, potentially.  These would then become private train services, run by resorts for the benefit of skiers.  This is a suggestion that I have begun making to ski resorts - and I'll keep you informed of progress.  By chartering the trains, the trains could potentially go on sale earlier (in line with Eurostar tickets, for example) and pricing could be made more clear and predictable - with a system to enable ski tour operators to create packages around the trains too.  All this was never the case when the trains were run by SNCF.

This chartered weekly service would be unlikely to be in operation before the 2017-18 season.  However, there might be a possibility to  do it for a test date in the 2016-17 season, if resorts move fast enough.

More on this to follow shortly...