Paris Nice: in the footsteps of the Train Bleu

At 1088 km, Paris Nice is one of France’s longest train lines, linking the capital with one of France’s richest regions: the Côte d’Azur. It’s the ideal link for night trains, and in the past was very prestigious thanks to the Train Bleu.

I tested the new service in November 2023.

My train journey from Paris to Nice in 2023

On May 10, 2021, Jean Castex, then the French Prime Minister, inaugurated the new Paris Nice intercity night train. Honestly, I thought it was a lot to do for a recycled product offering few innovations!

I made the same journey on board theParis – Nice night Intercités in November 2023 more anonymously.

Over the past two years, the service has become well established, enabling me to give you a good overview of its strengths and weaknesses.

I left the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris at 8:51 pm on a Saturday and arrived in Nice at 9:03 am the next day.

Paris-Nice overnight train journey

But before talking about my journey, I’d like to tell you about the past of the Paris-Nice line, with two night trains that have marked its history:

  • The famous Train Bleu, which ran from 1922 to 2017.
  • The Azur 2000 train, which ran from 1975 to 1981, has been forgotten, even though it was an extraordinary train that would be the stuff of dreams if it still existed.

All texts in color coral indicate an internal or external link.

Le Train Bleu: a long life, from prestige to oblivion

The Train Bleu ran from 1922 to 2007 between Paris and Ventimiglia via Nice. Over this long period, it has gone from a prestigious train to an ordinary intercity.

From 1920 to the 70s: A prestigious train

From the 1920s to the 1970s, the Paris-Nice-Ventimiglia line was one of the most exceptional in Europe, with its emblematic “Train Bleu“, named after the color of its metallic cars.

Le Train Bleu offered a bar car and a restaurant car. The former was withdrawn in 1968 and the latter in 1978.

In those days, the train only had luxury sleeping cars. The clientele was prestigious, with Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry, Princess Grace of Monaco, and Marlène Dietrich among the travelers. The fares charged were unaffordable for the middle classes, who had to travel in trains with far more spartan comfort on the same line.

The photos are taken from the reference book on the Train Bleu written by Jean des Cars and Paul Caracalla.

Train bleu archives

Train bleu archives 2

In the 80s, I was a steward on the Train Bleu.

In the 80s, during my university studies, I worked as a steward in the sleeping cars of the Train Bleu. We were called “conducteurs” in French, a somewhat old-fashioned term. The Train Bleu I’d known had become a train like any other, still with sleeping cars, but also with ordinary couchette cars. The dining car and bar car were just memories of the line’s old regulars.

But even under these conditions I loved working on this train. The clientele was still there, and you could tell they were loyal to the night train.

What’s more, the line between Saint-Raphaël and Ventimiglia is certainly one of the most beautiful in Europe, with its views over the Mediterranean Sea.

In the 80s, from just about anywhere in Europe, the night train was still essential to get to Nice. From Paris, there was a second train, the “Estérel”, and many provincial cities such as Nantes, Bordeaux, Metz, Strasbourg, or Calais were linked to Nice. Other night trains came from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

Sleeping cars from the '80s

From the 90s to 2017: the sad end of the Train Bleu

The decline continued with the withdrawal of the last sleeping cars in 2007. From then on, the Train Bleu featured only couchettes. Only the name bore witness to its prestigious past before the Train Bleu bowed out in 2017

As few people know, between 2010 and 2020, the “Riviera Express”, a modern and luxurious train, ran between Moscow and Nice. On this occasion, in 2016, SNCF decided to charter two Russian sleeping cars to improve the Paris-Nice connection. With covid and the war in Ukraine, all this seems a long way off.

Le Train Bleu: a restaurant? A ballet? A detective story?

Yet today, it’s still possible to rediscover the atmosphere of the Train Bleu… not on the rails, but at the Gare de Lyon in an environment that doesn’t move, a gourmet restaurant! It is located on the second floor, with a majestic décor in the neo-Baroque and Belle Époque styles of the 1900s. The ceilings are 8 meters high, and the restaurant is accessed by a magnificent double staircase. It’s a great experience, but one that forces you to stay on the platform side!

Finally, Le Train Bleu is also a detective story by Agatha Christie and a ballet with a libretto by Jean Cocteau. Le Train Bleu is an enormous cultural heritage for France. We’ve forgotten all about it.

Train Bleu the restaurant, the ballet and the detective story

The Azur 2000: an extraordinary vacation train

From 1975 to 1981, another night train, which few people remember today, ran once a week in summer from Paris to Menton via Nice: the Azur 2000.

An incredible range of services!

The Azur 2000 was a vacation train with a comprehensive range of services, thanks to several specialized cars. Judge for yourself:

  • Sleeping cars with complimentary in-compartment breakfast
  • Berths cars. I remember that to enhance passengers’ privacy, we used to install little curtains that allowed everyone to isolate themselves.
  • A restaurant car with a real kitchen and white tablecloth service.
  • A superb 1928 Pullman carriage, a survivor of the Orient Express, which served as a lounge bar.
  • A car disco where you could dance to the rhythm of the train and its switches, thanks to a DJ.
  • An 84-seat cinema car. At the time, there were only two in the world!

I remember when I worked on the Azur 2000, a baker used to come and supply us with hot croissants at the Marseille stop. It was a class act for our customers!

Unbelievable! Do you agree? Above all, it wasn’t a luxury train reserved for the “happy few” like the Accor Group’s ultra-luxury train projects, which don’t correspond to my vision of the night train. In addition to the fare, the Azur 2000 supplement was a reasonable 81 francs (30 euros in our time), making it accessible to a wide audience.

Unfortunately, there is little documentation on this train, which was the brainchild of Jean-Pierre Hutin, host of a famous French TV show about dogs and cats called “Trente millions d’amis”.

The photos are taken from the only press article on the Azur 2000 that I have found and kept from the time. I can’t even remember which magazine published it! So I can’t give you my sources.Azur 2000 train

I worked as a steward on board the Azur 2000 in 1981.

In 1981, when I wasn’t even 20, I had the chance to work as a steward before joining the prestigious Compagnie des Wagons-Lits.

The SNCF was responsible for the train and received all transport revenues and supplements for beds or couchettes (another word for berths). Setra 2000, a French tour operator, provided onboard service thanks to income from the Azur 2000 supplement.

1981 was its last summer, as the clientele was no longer there. The failure is partly due to SNCF’s lack of efforts to promote the train. Customers who booked a place on the Azur 2000 did so somewhat by chance, without knowing what this train was.

Admittedly, it was designed by hand and its business model relied on underpaid student staff, but it could have been refined and optimized. In fact, at the end of the season, I wrote a report outlining several possible developments.

No more nostalgia. After a break of several years, the Paris Nice night train is back. Let’s take a look at borrowing in 2023!

Paris Austerlitz station: departure of Paris Nice night train

In Paris, it was in the pouring autumn rain that I went to the Gare d’Austerlitz to catch my night train to Nice, departing at 8:51 pm.

Luckily I remembered to look at my ticket, as traditionally all trains to the south-east used to depart from Gare de Lyon.

This is no longer the case, as SNCF has decided that all night trains to the south of France will depart from Austerlitz station.

The least pleasant of Paris stations

I was most familiar with the Gare d’Austerlitz in the 80s when I worked in the sleeping cars. It was the main station serving southwest France and the Iberian peninsula. Since the advent of the TGV, this role has been taken away from the station and given to the modern Gare Montparnasse, which is more central and better connected to the metro.

Today, apart from night trains, it only handles intercity and regional trains to central France.

I found it to be the least attractive of all Paris stations, as it was built one on top of the other in different periods with no real architectural coherence. The suburban trains and metro lines ran through it like ugly scars. The parking lot in front was not very well organized, and the passenger ways were inconvenient.

So it’s been years since I last visited it, on this November evening in 2023, when I decided to take the night train to Nice. It’s a shock because the station is a huge construction site. It’s between wooden palisades that I make my way to my train. With the rain that has been pouring down on the capital since morning, the atmosphere is rather gloomy.

Austerlitz station under construction

A new station is planned within the next four to five years

Billboards inform me that major construction work has been underway for several years, and that a new station is due to open in the next four to five years.

So it’s hard to give an opinion of this station. Today, the environment is quite disastrous compared with the Gare de Lyon, from where the TGV trains, French high-speed trains, to south-eastern France depart. We’ll have to come back in a few years to see the final result. But I’m afraid the Gare d’Austerlitz will never really be able to replace the elegant Gare de Lyon, with its magnificent clock tower and iconic “Train Bleu” restaurant.

I return to my train, where the check-in is carried out at the beginning of the platform. This is, I think, a good initiative, as it means that passengers are not disturbed after the train has left, and if they have any questions about their journey they can address them immediately to the controllers. Passengers arrive quietly, a far cry from the hustle and bustle that accompanies TGV departures, but it’s quite pleasant.

Departure Intercités Nice

Discover the new Paris Nice night train

Gone are the days of dreamy train names. I’ll be traveling on an ordinary Intercités train, numbered very rationally: 5771.

Successful restyling of old Coral cars

The train is made up of old Coral coaches renovated by SNCF. Looking at them, it’s hard to believe they’re forty years old. The livery, black and white with a red line, is elegant and a far cry from the gaudy, ugly colors of the Ouigo.

It’s a very long train because we have two in one! The first section is bound for Briançon, in the French Alps, and the other for Nice. Separation takes place in the middle of the night in Valence. This means that only one locomotive is needed for a large part of the journey, helping to improve the line’s economy. On the return journey to Paris, the same system is applied, but the disadvantage is that if one of the two trains is late, the other will have to wait for it.

I notice that several cars have their roofs painted white. This adds to the elegance, but above all, in summer when the car is parked all day in full sun, white saves a few precious degrees to limit the use of air conditioning.

Delivered outside Intercités night

An old locomotive to pull us along

I go to the head of the train to observe the locomotive, a BB22000, which will take us away. The railway workers affectionately call him the “broken nose”. because of its front shape. They’re not all new, having been commissioned in 1976! As if Air France would still operate Boeing 727s or Airbus A300s today.

BB22000 locomotive

A choice of three comfort levels

Three classes are offered by SNCF:

  • First-class berths with four-berth compartments: the top of the range
  • Second-class berths with six-berth compartments
  • Seating in two large open compartments

I chose to travel in First Class and as I don’t like sharing my night with strangers I privatized a compartment which is a choice offered by the SNCF.

Until this year, in addition to the ticket, you had to pay a modest supplement of 75 EUR for this privatization. In 2024, a new, more expensive fare structure will be introduced, with greater availability of private compartments in return.

Traveling in privatized First Class: space, but few services

SNCF offers just one first-class carriage, with 36 berths divided into nine compartments. Mine is in the middle. This is the best location, away from the bogies and the noise of the rails. It’s a stroke of luck since you can’t choose your seat from the map, unlike on the TGV.

Generation X or Baby-boom travelers

Before taking possession of my compartment, I observe my fellow passengers in First Class. They are all between 50 and 70 years old, traveling alone or in couples. Soon everyone is locked into their compartment. Nobody seems to want to socialize.

1st intercity customers

A spacious, attractively decorated compartment

My first impression of my compartment is rather positive. The white, gray, and red colors are harmonious, and the finish is of the highest quality. A very good renovation job was done by the SNCF teams. Well done! I regret, however, the choice of lino to cover the floor instead of a carpet, which would have given a more cozy, luxurious feel.

The two upper bunks are fixed and accessible via a ladder. There’s enough space for four people to sit comfortably on the two lower berths. However, the very vertical backrest is uncomfortable, and you have to prop yourself up with pillows. Fortunately, I have four of them at my disposal! Alone in my compartment, I really have a lot of space. Traveling at two would have been fine too. With four people, as long as you’re with companions you know, it’s still fun. The luggage space under the bunks and above the aisle is well-sized.

Despite being first class, the toilets are shared and located at the end of the car.

Couchettes 1ere SNCF

Are we safe in berths?

Safety is a recurring concern for passengers on night trains. SNCF is well aware of this and has sought to remedy the situation in two ways:

  • A double locking system, one of which cannot be opened from the outside.
  • The possibility for women to reserve a berth in a compartment where men are excluded.

Is it enough? I honestly don’t know, because safety is also a matter of customer perception.

Second-class sleeper travel: Promiscuity without conviviality

I’m off to visit the train’s other classes, starting with the second-class sleeper, or berths, cars. There are five of them, each with ten six-berth compartments.

In 2023, they remain almost unchanged from the 70s, except for the added air-conditioning and the velvet that has thankfully replaced the leatherette!

Philippe Besson’s excellent novel “Paris Briançon” paints a vivid picture of sleeper travel. Travelers get to know each other, chat, and play board games before falling asleep. TV reports made at the time of the recent relaunch of night trains in France highlighted this folklore of cheerful, sociable travelers.

We sleep on top of each other and it’s hard to sit down

The reality I see on my trip is a little different. The second-class compartments, which are slightly narrower than those in first class, have six berths instead of four. Needless to say, with luggage, space is really limited for everyone. Unless you fold down the middle berth, it’s not possible to travel seated. So travelers feel obliged to lie down on their bunks even if they don’t feel like sleeping yet.

Overcrowding, rather than fostering socialization, encourages travelers to take refuge on their smartphone screens to preserve what little privacy there is in the bunks. Fortunately, wifi is available on board, and each berth has an electrical socket for recharging.

2nd class SNCF berths

One of the sleeper cars has space for bicycles. However, don’t forget to book the space before your trip. Some luggage that couldn’t fit into the cramped compartments is placed there too.

SNCF bikes and services

Generation Z travelers discover night trains

The second-class clientele is younger, often under thirty – Generation Zand seems to be discovering this means of transport, which had almost disappeared before they were born.

Seating for little more than the price of ten Paris metro ticket

I end my ride at the head of the train, where the only 55-seat car is located. On the night of my trip, this one was almost full, unlike the berths, many of which were unoccupied. In my opinion, this proves that the main motivation for night train passengers is the cheap price.

If you book in advance, SNCF offers prices starting from 19 euros, barely more expensive than ten Paris metro tickets. Even “blabacar“, a car-share company, isn’t competitive on the Paris-Nice route!

That said, the seating car is pretty good. The seats are wide and recline well. We end up with a level of comfort comparable to that of an airline’s “Premium Economy” class. The light is subdued and the cabin harmony, in shades of gray with a touch of apple green, is pleasing to the eye.

For once, it’s better than the nightjets of Öbb, the Austrian railroads, whose seating offer is very disappointing.

SNCF night train seats

My night in a private First Class sleeper compartment

I believe that a successful overnight train journey must meet, at the very least, three simple criteria:

  • Enjoy a healthy and pleasant meal
  • To have been able to wash and go to the toilet comfortably
  • Sleep well to arrive rested

What about today’s Paris-Nice train?

The meal I ordered when booking was canceled!

By chance, I discovered an SNCF website where you can order your meal before departure. With our train leaving at 8:51 pm, I thought it would be a nice way to spend the evening. The offer is rather limited, but the lentil salad with onion confit smoked bacon and butternut purée I had chosen looked appetizing. I had completed it with a pistachio and Morello cherry moelleux for a modest overall price of EUR 14.20 with the promise that a steward or stewardess would deliver it directly to my compartment. Rather nice? The photos on the site were enticing.

Twenty minutes after departure, seeing no one coming, I go to the car where the steward is in a small cabin. After telling him what I was expecting, he replied that he was very surprised because on his tablet it said that my order had been canceled! What’s more, there’s no way for him to make a commercial gesture except to pay for it out of his pocket. I’ve had to buy junk food that’s unhealthy, too salty and too sweet…

Meals Paris Nice

For the record, I’ll be writing a complaint e-mail to the SNCF, who will be offering me a 5 EUR voucher to be used on intercity trains only! A bit small for the inconvenience of having to skip a meal! When it comes to catering, the SNCF is a very bad company. The German, Austrian, and Swedish railroads have lessons to teach us in this area.

Access to communal toilets and washrooms is unpleasant

After watching a film on my tablet, which I had downloaded before leaving, I get ready for bed.

No washbasins or toilets in sleeper compartments, even in first class. Fortunately, I’ve packed slippers and a jogging suit for going to the bathroom at the end of the car. The light in the corridor is strong and rather aggressive. It doesn’t encourage you to rest at night, and it’s best to avoid pissing in the middle of the night.

The toilets are clean and will remain so throughout the journey, as the train’s sole steward will stop by several times to make sure. Funny detail: number ones and number twos are not placed in a container like in the TGV, but directly on the tracks , just like in the old days! This makes the railway network the largest toilet in France!

Corridor and toilet

I had an excellent night’s sleep in my private compartment!

To make the night more pleasant, the SNCF provides a small kit including earplugs and an eye mask, which are absolutely necessary if you have to share your compartment with other travelers. A small bottle of water is also included, along with a chewy toothpaste! An oddity, but if you’ve forgotten your toothbrush, this may come in handy.

The bedding consists of a rather comfortable pillow and a kind of “comforter cover”. It’s much more hygienic than in the old days when the SNCF would give you a sack sheet and blankets that weren’t often washed. If you’re in the habit of tossing and turning a lot at night, you’ll soon find yourself tangled up in the « comforter cover». If the compartment is not full, it’s best to take two: one to cover the bunk, the other to serve as a real comforter. That’s what I’m doing and I’m having a great night! All the more so as the old coral cars are quite well soundproofed and stable.

Bedding in 1st floor bunks

I’m woken up at 6:20 am by the controller, who announces to warn passengers getting off in Marseille to get ready. A bit early for us as we continue to Nice!

In summer, when the sun rises early, I can enjoy the magnificent sea views between Marseille and Toulon.

But in winter, the sun only rises timidly towards Toulon, so I fall back into a half-sleep as far as Saint-Raphaël.

Mediocre coffee for breakfast

When I wake up, I go to see the train’s only steward, who has only a mediocre coffee, a vacuum-packed brioche, and an industrial orange juice to offer me for sale.

Not great! For your information, Öbb, the Austrian railroad, offers breakfast to its customers in both sleeping cars and couchettes.

Marseille Blancarde

Waking up to the sunny Mediterranean: magical!

I’m so excited when our train leaves Saint-Raphaël station because we’re about to skirt the Mediterranean and the Estérel coastline with its red rocks. This is the magical moment that makes the Paris-Nice night train such an extraordinary rail experience! I’ve never been tired of it.

I’m lucky because the sky is brilliant blue and the sun is shining. Paris and its dreariness of yesterday seem far away. It’s simply fabulous! And that’s putting it mildly. I love the Paris-Nice night train just for that feeling when I wake up.

The old Coral trains allow you to open the window and inhale the scents of Provence. A pleasure that’s disappeared with TGVs, where the windows are fixed!

We pass over the viaduct of the Calanque d’Anthéor. We almost feel as if we’re driving on the beach, so close is it to us! This viaduct isn’t just any viaduct, as it dates back to 1860, the year in which the county of Nice became part of France.

Napoleon III wanted to extend the train line from Saint-Raphaël to Nice as quickly as possible to show that the city was part of France.

At the time, the work involved in crossing the Estérel massif was a real technological feat.

Mediterranean sunrise
Côte d'Azur

Cannes and Antibes, heralding the end of the voyage

After leaving the Esterel massif, we reach the more urbanized Côte d’Azur. We stop off in Cannes, a quiet, old town outside the famous festival, and Antibes, before driving along the sea almost to the beach. I notice the pyramid-shaped buildings of Marina Baie des Anges, with their bold architecture.

Marina Baie des Anges

Arrival in Nice at 9.08 am. after a journey of 12 hours and 15 minutes

We arrive almost on time in Nice. The station’s glass roof is bright and beautiful. A footbridge leading to the main building makes it easier to appreciate. I take one last look at my train, which looks like a long, sleeping snake.

Nice train station

No showers on arrival…

In Nice, the SNCF does not offer shower facilities. This service is only available to first-class passengers at Paris Austerlitz. Too bad! I’ll have to wait until mid-afternoon when my hotel room is available before I can freshen up. Fortunately, I’m on vacation and don’t have any business appointments! The night Intercités is not designed for men or women traveling for work.

Nice station forecourt

My trip is coming to an end!

I really like Nice, especially in winter, because the city is usually sunny while the rest of France is moping in winter rain.

I was delighted to make this trip, which brought back many memories of my youth. Thanks to my private compartment, I slept very well and, as in the past, as soon as I woke up I was glued to the window to watch the superb landscapes of the Côte d’Azur.

I hope that the current line is just the beginning of a new era of night trains to Paris-Nice, as it still lacks many things to make it completely attractive.

What does the Paris-Nice night train need to restore its appeal??

With Nice, Cannes, Monaco, Menton, and Saint-Raphaël, the Côte d’Azur is one of France’s most densely populated and affluent regions. It’s also the region furthest from Paris. From the capital, travel time by car is nine to ten hours and six hours by TGV. That’s a long time!

This is the ideal relationship for the night train, but we need to offer a service that better meets customer expectations, which is far from being the case today.

Active, affluent customers will not take the current night train

I observed the customer profile of the train I took. They’re either over 55 and have experienced the night train in the past, with its advantages and disadvantages, or under 30. Between the two, almost nobody! The mid-age active people take the TGV or the plane. Today’s overnight travelers are motivated above all by the price, which, thanks to government subsidies, is lower than for TGVs and saves a night’s hotel accommodation. Nostalgia for night trains and ecological arguments are other reasons for the new appeal of night trains.

If night trains are to remain viable in the long term, the challenge will also be to attract a more affluent clientele, ready to pay more, but with additional requirements. I can think of three major ones that don’t seem all that complicated to implement.

My first request: to offer real sleeping cars with modern comforts

The first is to offer sleeping cars with real bedding, private washbasins, and toilets.

The reference that should serve as inspiration is the new nightjets of Öbb, the Austrian railroads, as shown in the photo below.

A shower would be a plus, but other solutions, such as an in-station offer, seem to me to be an alternative worth considering. Airlines have followed this policy, investing in luxurious lounges to compensate for the simpler on-board service on short flights. The customer experience begins and ends at the station.

Nightjet of the future - Sleeping car

My second request: give everyone privacy

The second is to innovate on the bubble of privacy that passengers will be demanding in 2023, even in couchettes. From this point of view, the six-berth compartment is the opposite of what people want. The Öbb, again, have just invented the capsule berth (see photo below), but perhaps other solutions exist?

It’s up to rail marketers to be as creative as the airlines, who have been able to create highly imaginative business-class products that meet customer expectations, despite the very complex constraints of weight and space on board the aircraft!

Nightjet of the future


My third request: to offer quality catering

The third is to offer quality catering. It’s possible to dream of a dining car with the chef on board, but I don’t think that’s economically realistic.

On the other hand, I don’t see what would prevent SNCF from offering catering comparable to that served on board Eurostar to London or Brussels, or Lyria to Geneva or Zurich.

Eurostar and Thalys meals

Connect to the Italian network via the Nice-Ventimiglia section

I regret that the Intercités doesn’t continue to Ventimiglia like the Train Bleu of yesterday. Firstly, because the line overlooking the sea is magnificent, and secondly, in addition to serving Monaco and Menton, it would facilitate connections with Italian trains to San Remo, Genoa, Pisa, or even Rome.

Nice-Ventimiglia map

Communicating the imaginary night train!

Finally, current communication is very weak. The night train conveys a fabulous imaginary world that is little exploited by the SNCF. Today, even more than before, we need to dream.

The history of the Paris-Nice line is extraordinary, but the anonymous Intercités train 5771 has forgotten it.

Train Bleu advertising posters

Who’s up for the challenge?

Paris and Nice are two rich and populous economic centers. What’s more, the distance is just right for the night train. If there’s one relationship that can work in France, it’s this one. The demand is there and just needs to be stimulated by innovative products and services.

When will we see the “Train Bleu” of the 21st century? The Government has its share of responsibility, but so do rail operators, starting with the SNCF, which needs to be more creative and daring, for example by teaming up with a start-up like Midnight Trains, which wants to reinvent the night train!




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