Ski resorts by train

Sleeper trains from Paris - what now?

Sat 11 November, 2017


Daniel Elkan

You might know that last October, SNCF announced that it was going to axe the sleeper trains that ran from Paris to destinations all over France.  This was brutal, train-killing carnage by a company that had stopped caring about its night trains, slashing out like something from a zombie apocalypse B-movie.

Before the slaughter, these were some of the ski resorts that you could travel to by sleeper train 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, Montgenevre, Morillon, Morzine, Peisey-Vallandry, Risoul, Sainte Foy, Samoens, St Gervais, St Martin de Belleville, Serre Chevalier, Tignes, Val d'Isere, Val Thorens, Valmorel, Vars.

Now, with most of the routes gone, the only one that remains for skiers is the sleeper train from Paris to Briancon, which serves these ski resorts:  

Montgenevre, Serre Chevalier, Vars and Risoul.

Quite a difference.

SNCF has confirmed to me in a statement that the Paris - Briancon sleeper train route will stay open until at least 2020: "SNCF has no plans to eliminate its Paris-Briançon overnight service, which is maintained and guaranteed by the French State under the SNCF Intercités 2016-2020 agreement."

However there are a few things to consider, when considering this travel option.

Depart London St Pancras 16:31 by Eurotar
Arrive Paris-Nord at 19:47
Change from Paris-Nord to Paris-Austerlitz
Depart Paris-Austerlitz 21:31
Arrive Briancon 08:30

What you might notice is that the sleeper train takes 11 hours to travel from Paris to Briancon.  Why it takes this long, I don’t know (it’s not the distance).  It used to be a bit quicker on this route.  And on the other routes that were axed, the sleeper trains took considerably less time too.  You would leave Paris at 11pm and arrive at 07am – 8am, depending on the destination, spending 8 – 9 hours on the train.

Eleven hours on a sleeper train might seem like quite a while, and I think it is. The trains have six or four couchette compartments, or carriages with reclining seats, but no café bar.  So you are either in your couchette, or in the corridor looking out the window or perhaps chatting with other travellers.  

This journey can still be a great way to get to the slopes, but the longer journey is something to be aware of.

Booking sleeper trains from Paris to Briancon
The sleeper train should, in principle, be able to book easily online, but for several reasons, it isn’t.  This is why:

The Friday sleeper trains haven’t gone on sale when they are supposed to.
The sleeper service runs every night of the week, but at the moment, Friday overnights from Paris to Briancon, which many skiers want, of course, are not yet on sale.  Normally, you should be able to book these for up to 12th March 2018 now.  SNCF has promised that they will go on sale, but given no explanation for why they aren’t.  

Booking travel online for the journeys that are on sale, is problematic because:
a)    When you try to book the journey in one go (i.e. from London to Briancon, the rail company websites display ‘no journey found’ or show you daytime journeys.
b)    On Voyage SNCF’s website, you have to choose tickets by price instead of by types of accommodation (reclining seat or 6-berth couchette or 4-berth couchettes).  It’s shocking web usability.  

The solution is:
1.    If booking yourself, split the booking into London – Paris and Paris – Briancon.  This isn’t ideal, as it’s better to have everything booked as one journey, so that in the event of a late train running you are covered by CIV rules.
2.    Book on the phone, by calling Voyages SNCF (0844 848 5848).
3.    Contact a rail-booking expert agency, such as Ffestiniog Travel - see Tip 8 in our how to book cheaper rail travel guide.

This season and the future
Can this sleeper-train service from Paris to Briancon be improved? SNCF needs to pull its socks up and get with programme.  Put the damn trains on sale when they are supposed to go on sale, or at least communicate as to why they aren’t and when they will be.  SNCF also needs to sort out the booking system.

Looking at the 2018-19 season, the journey duration should be shortened where possibly by having the train depart Paris later.  I’m going to write this week to the tourist offices of regions in France in the Southern Alps that are served by this service, and see if their Mayors can’t have some sway with SNCF to persuade them to actually give a monkeys about providing a decent service.

It’s not really a lot to ask, is it?