Brian Melican, The Daily Telegraph, December 16, 2013
Some may think that the first through train between Madrid and Paris, inaugurated in 1969 using ground-breaking Talgo train technology to switch between standard and Iberian gauges, deserves a classier send-off. Aside from anything else, it was a diplomatic masterpiece, given the strained relationship between left-leaning France and Franco’s fascist Spain. Yet t oday the last direct train between the two capitals will set off from Paris Austerlitz at 19:45, rolling into Madrid Chamartín at a little past 9am tomorrow , without so much as an official announcement. This is how the Talgo ends: not with a proud press release, but with whimpered confirmation three days before its last journey.
For fans of the units’ en-suite sleeper cabins and nifty gauge-swapping axles, it is a familiar story: the night trains linking Zurich and Milan with Barcelona disappeared earlier this year; now it’s the turn of the trains from Paris to Barcelona and Madrid. SNCF stresses that this is by no means the end of rail services southwards: in fact, as of this weekend, Paris will be little more than six hours away from Barcelona by rail.
Yet for those of us who enjoyed both the genteel and practical sides of travelling overnight, the new high-speed services using French TGVs and Spanish AVEs, while numerous, are little consolation: rather than spending eight of the 11 hours it took the Talgo to get from Paris to Barcelona asleep and having a full day in both cities, we’ll be awake for most of the daytime journey, wishing we were already there.
There is an inexorable logic to the disappearance of night trains. They are costly to run (instead of 80 seats, a sleeper carriage offers only 30 beds); they are limited to one trip every 24 hours; and numerous staff need to be paid for long, unsocial shifts (the Talgos even had a very talented on-board chef).
Low-cost airlines have taken a chunk out of the market, too. Add to this prohibitive access fees for international services in Europe, and the future looks dark, as Mark Smith, who runs the award-winning rail website Seat61.com, explains: “The EU tried to create a market for cross-border services, but by setting access fees artificially high it killed off a whole range of trains – especially sleepers, whose costs make them vulnerable.”
Smith cites the Berlin-Kiev Kashtan sleeper, defunct since 2010, and “Europe’s most exotic train”, the Berlin-to-Siberia service, also to be withdrawn this Saturday: “The Sibirjak ran once weekly. Now it’s gone and there’s no more revenue from it: it’s a lose-lose situation.”
It would seem that the safest night trains are domestic ones such as the spectacular Milan-Palermo sleeper, for example, or the booming London-Penzance and Scotland services, which benefit from national subsidies and immunity from the political conflicts that pose perhaps the greatest challenge of all to cross-border trains.
With France resolutely refusing to open its network to competition, other national operators such as the Italian Trenitalia and Spanish Renfe are wary of cooperating: “The fact that the demise of Talgo wasn’t the end of direct Franco-Spanish services entirely is surprising. It must have gone right to the top,” Smith suggests. A diplomatic masterpiece, then. Plus ça change…