Interactive interview with Paul Bittard, a second-year master’s student in Transport, Logistics, Territories, Environments (TLTE) at Sorbonne University (Paris).

Presentation of Paul Bittard

Paul Bittard, a second-year master’s student in transport logistics and environmental territories at Sorbonne University, wants to write his thesis on the revival of night trains. Specifically, he wants to study whether the current conditions of the French railway system allow for this revival and whether it can be sustained over time.

He was invited to the Objectif Train de Nuit meeting to ask questions about the project to revive night trains mixed with freight, which is an interesting idea but is not mentioned in the official revival project. He is not responding to any order from SNCF Voyageurs and is strictly working for himself to validate his degree by completing his thesis. His thesis advisor is Patricia Pérennes.

participants : Anne-Rose Le Van, Eric Boisseau, Jean-Marc Tagliaferri, Christopher Tasti, Jacques Brisou, Charles-Henri Paquette, Stefano Sibilla, Paul Bittard

Question 1 : Paul Bittard asks about the association’s intention to operate its own night train or to work with other railway operators to revive night trains through the concept of mixed freight/passenger trains.

Eric Boisseau explains that for now, the Objectif Train de Nuit association is focusing on the successful implementation of a concept of mixed passenger/freight trains. Mixed trains are allowed to run on the SNCF network up to 120 km/h, but beyond that, a market authorization procedure is required. The association’s objective is to validate this concept of operation so that all railway companies in Europe can use it in accordance with European railway system regulations. The association is not currently looking to operate its own night train, but rather to enable other operators to revive night trains using the concept of mixed trains.

Jacques Brisou explains that the European railway system is now interoperable and that regulations are decided by Europe. Thus, the mixing of trains with passengers on board and freight vehicles has been removed from the safety rules applicable to the European railway system. This does not mean that it is technically impossible, but it raises questions about speed limits, compression effort, etc. It is possible to consider a derogation and a local application in France, but this will depend on the desired speed. It may involve the reintroduction of an existing rule or the introduction of a new operating principle, which would be rather complicated.

Question 2 : Paul Bittard asks if the regulatory authorization for freight/passenger coupling beyond 120 km/h is on track from a European perspective, or if it is still very difficult, and if there has been progress on this issue.

Eric Boisseau responds that the association is currently starting the process of requesting regulatory authorization for freight/passenger coupling beyond 120 km/h. In France, since the creation of Réseau Ferré de France in 1997, there has been a tendency to separate railway companies according to their activity, passenger or freight, unlike before when railway companies were fully integrated. Before 1997, it was easier to mix passenger compositions, especially on short distances, which were called “omnibus” at the time.

Question 3 : Anne-Rose Le Van raises the possibility that there may still be mixed freight and passenger trains in Switzerland despite the relatively short distances and low speeds, and requests information on the current situation.

Eric Boisseau responds that mixed freight-passenger trains are still practiced on some Swiss narrow-gauge railways, such as the Rhätische Bahn, which are technically independent of French railways that are in the European railway system. In France, this mix is no longer practiced since the 1980s. Stefano Sibilla adds that mixing is not practiced in Italy and that companies either have a passenger license or a freight license, and they share the market in this way.

Question 4 : Paul Bittard asks about the role and involvement of the State and public authorities in the project to revive night trains. He asks whether there is a desire to support this project or if it is progressing despite the lack of support from the State and public authorities. He also wonders whether the association has contacts with the State and public authorities, and whether there is any interest on their part in the project.

Eric Boisseau responded by presenting the different sources of funding and support obtained for the feasibility study of their night train project linking the Iberian Peninsula to Northern Europe. They have obtained the support of several actors such as the Occitanie Regional Council, the Grand Est Regional Council, SNCF network, the railways of the Generalitat de Catalonia, Nestlé Waters, the Talgo company and the Transfesa company. Eric Boisseau has also met with different railway manufacturers, as well as companies and local authorities interested in this concept of night train. He emphasizes, however, that the organization of a freight and passenger train in Europe is an innovation, and that the world of freight is often less considered than that of the passenger. Despite the interest generated by their project, Eric Boisseau regrets that the government is not giving it sufficient priority, but the association continues to carry the project and seek support.

Question 5 : When you said that you had visited railway manufacturers, was it with the aim of building new equipment, or for another purpose?

Eric Boisseau answered the question by explaining that several railway manufacturers contacted them during the press conference with German partners. He also indicated that German manufacturers are considered more serious than French ones. France is seen as being a little too introverted and thinks it is performing well in rail, but when traveling in Europe, it is noticed that Europeans are much more active in rail than the French. Eric Boisseau mentioned the success of the TGV, but also mentioned the phenomenal delays in the French rail network. They discussed with Stadler, Siemens, Alstom and Bombardier (now merged with Alstom), and also met with Talgo in Madrid. For railway manufacturers, the initiative to create new trains and new rail traffic is an opportunity to have new orders, and they see this initiative in a positive light.

Question 6 : Paul Bittard asks if the state plans to delegate the operation of future mixed freight and passenger trains to private operators through a public service delegation or if it plans a freely organized service. He asks what would be the most feasible mode of operation according to the Objectif Train de Nuit association.

The different answers provided by Eric Boisseau, Jacques Brisou, and Jean-Marc Tagliaferri to Paul Bittard’s question have highlighted several important points:

The economic model of freight and passenger mix is aimed at ensuring the profitability of night train operations by ensuring that revenue from freight and passengers is higher than operating costs. Night trains in France have become deficit in recent decades due to competition from TGVs and low-cost airlines.
SNCF Voyageurs, the anonymous company that operates night trains in France, does not seem to be interested in developing a night train network that would compete with TGVs.

It is difficult to obtain precise figures on revenue and operating costs for night trains in France because SNCF Voyageurs does not communicate these figures.
The modernization of Corail cars in France is a light renovation that will only allow night trains to remain in service for a maximum of five to ten years.
SNCF could have additional revenue for maintaining its rail network if the state invested in its maintenance.

Question 7 : Paul Bittard asked a technical question about the problems that the project could encounter with SNCF Réseau, particularly with regard to the costs of train paths. He also raised the question of night work carried out by SNCF Réseau, which could have an impact on the project’s implementation. He asked if night work was one of the possible causes for train delays and if the project could be carried out despite these works for several more years. Finally, he asked if these aspects had been taken into account in the project and what the position of the SNCF Réseau spokesperson was on this matter.

Jacques Brisou explains that the situation of SNCF is paradoxical. Indeed, SNCF is the parent company of the historical monopolistic operator, but has no say in the activity of the independent infrastructure manager. However, the state has managed to give the status of a subsidiary of SNCF to this manager, called SNCF Réseau. This poses problems because SNCF Réseau is obliged to balance its accounts by 2024, which is strictly impossible and has led to the departure of Luc Lallemand. To achieve this, SNCF Réseau is forced to increase tolls, which are already high for travelers, and this price increase is especially felt by independent railway companies, who do not have the power to increase their prices like SNCF. In addition, these companies face a strategy of obstruction by the French state to opening up to competition. The French railway market is therefore in a vicious and perverse system. Nevertheless, the government has announced a 100 billion euro investment plan for the development of railways for the next 15 years, and this should improve the situation. However, the market really needs to open up in France and obstacles to competition need to be removed.

Eric Boisseau adds that night trains are long-distance trains for both passengers and goods. He also points out that culturally, passengers accept good schedules even if the train does not run at its maximum speed. He notes that until the 1990s, there were many night trains. However, since the 2010s, the circulation of these trains has decreased considerably, with the exception of certain trains such as the Paris-Briançon and Paris-Toulouse to Tour de Carol. For this reason, SNCF Réseau has taken the habit of doing night work on closed lines, as this reduces costs. However, if enough night trains are put back into circulation, SNCF Réseau will be forced to review the design of the work and accept doing work on circulated lines rather than on closed lines. He explains that if the proposed economic model is put in place, this will pave the way for fast freight trains, which will lead to an improvement in the regularity and punctuality of freight trains. In addition, this will create new trains, which will allow a virtuous circle of improvement in the quality of freight trains.

Question 8 : Paul Bittard asks a question about the balance of power between railway companies and public authorities, particularly the Ministry of Budget, in the context of opening up to competition. He wonders who will eventually win: will the pressure from railway companies to run many trains eventually bend SNCF Réseau, or will the latter maintain its night work on the lines and have the last word?

Eric Boisseau, Charles-Henri Paquette, and Jacques Brisou provided the following responses:

Eric Boisseau emphasizes that the balance of power is not with SNCF Réseau, which does not have enough financial means, but with the government and the Ministry of Budget. He also indicates that railway companies must unite to be stronger against Bercy.
Charles-Henri Paquette explains that out of the 100 billion euros needed for the modernization of the network, only 25% is provided by the state, with the rest being financed by regions and Europe. He highlights the importance of calls for tenders to find additional funding. With regards to tolls, he explained that conventional trains do not pay market charges, which is an advantage to encourage their development, but there are questions concerning tolls for mixed freight and passenger trains. Finally, he mentioned that some companies, such as Systra, had made announcements in the past but did not materialize their projects, suggesting that the night train project may be economically complicated.

Jacques Brisou emphasizes that French governments will be constrained by Europe to increase the modal share of railways to 30%, and that railway companies must prepare for this transition, regardless of the duration of governments in power. He reminds that the current modal share is 10%, and that the doubling announced by the president of SNCF is not achievable without concrete actions.
In summary, the speakers highlight the importance of funding, particularly from regional and European sources, to modernize the rail network and enable companies to offer quality services. They also emphasize that the success of the opening up to competition will depend on the ability of actors to work together, and that the transition towards a modal share of railways of 30% in Europe will be inevitable.

Note: In French, “Bercy” refers to the French Ministry of the Economy and Finance.