A beginners' guide to buying trains

S01E01: Do you purchase new - or go secondhand ?

Loads of you have told us you can’t wait to see our ‘hotels on rails’ linking Paris with several other great cities across Europe. In 2024, the first of our trains will leave the French capital just as night falls, allowing you to wake up just as the sun rises somewhere in southern Europe. Until then, we’ll be doing our utmost to prepare the very best on-board experience we can. And since we’re aiming to totally rethink the very concept of the sleeper train, we’ve got quite the task ahead.

Starting this week, we’ll take you behind the scenes of Midnight Trains HQ. And so why not start from the very top? Right now we’re going to explain how exactly we’re going about buying our trains. Without totally giving away our plans (that would be silly from both a strategic and competition point of view), we’ll be letting you in on how we’re going about purchasing our engines, carriages and more, over the course of a three-part article series.

There are two options for a new operator like us: buy secondhand or new material, both of which it’s possible to buy two different ways. You can either buy the gear outright (so we’d be the owners of our own trains) or by leasing carriages instead. Each of these possibilities evidently brings its own set of advantages and disadvantages, with neither offering the perfect solution.

In this first instalment, we’ll be focusing on secondhand material – the option many major European operators, like Regiojet and Transdev, go for. To start, this solution has the advantage of limiting the upfront cost (the prices theoretically being less than if the material were new), as well as reducing the time it would take to get the trains on rails (delays in production for new material can be pretty long). But as always, things are always a little more complex than they seem.

In Europe, secondhand material is very rare. The majority of new operators look for what we in the industry call ‘hauled’ material: passenger carriages that are pulled along by a locomotive engine, like those Corail cars you may well have sat in on a TER journey in France. However, very little of this sort of material has been produced over the past 20 years, since the big operators have been so focused on high speed and the engine power that requires – as is the case with TGV.

The result is pretty obvious: demand for ‘hauled’ material far outstrips supply. In fact, there wouldn’t be enough for a single line, and even if you were to get hold of some, its age and condition would necessitate huge renovation works. This can prove more or less costly, but is pretty essential to ensure the train will have a long life (in many cases, guaranteeing ten to 15 years’ more use).

Depending on the operator’s vision and the service it wants to offer prospective travellers (and in our case, that’s you), the interior will likely have to be redone too. This involves rethinking the layout of all indoor spaces, the location of windows, the plumbing… That’s a whole other task to take into account and one that comes with a huge cost (which may be more or less depending on the various alterations that need to be made). Yet another factor that could end up delaying the start of services.

And a final point to consider: with ‘hauled material’ actually being pretty rare, it’s pretty common for the operator (or whichever company is charged with renovating or doing up the trains) not to be based in the same country as the material in question. That means you also have to organise the transport of the material to whichever organisation (or again from place to place if the renovation takes place across several firms).

So there you go, though secondhand may seem wise, the additional costs of subsequent work, and delays it causes, could certainly make you think twice. Not to mention that the search for the right material also requires a huge research effort that can be long and costly too. See you same time, same place, next week for our second delve into the process of buying trains. We’ll be running through another option you could consider: purchasing new.

P.S. Railway experts, we’re very aware we’ve described the buying process in very broad terms and can confirm that many other important factors are involved.

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