A beginners’ guide to designing trains

S02 E01: Working out exactly what you need on board

You asked for it, so here it is: the return of our series on what’s going on behind the scenes as we prepare to launch Midnight Trains. In the first season, we lifted the curtain on everything that needs to be done to purchase trains. If you missed it, the episodes are available here, here and here.

In reality, we skipped several key steps. That’s why, starting this week, we decided to return with a new season of five episodes to tell you everything you need to know to design a train (and much more, considering the design is so tied up with our general mission to reinvigorate the sleeper train). Think of this as a sort of Star Wars-style prequel to the actual experience of riding on our trains.

Before going about buying trains, there are a number of key steps related to design that are essential because they’ll allow you to analyse the compatibility of the material as it is and to work out the costs of renovation (if you buy second-hand), or to prepare the list of costs once you’ve consulted with manufacturers (if you buy new). And an important point to note in our case is that we’re aiming to create ‘hotels on rails’: no offence intended towards day trains, but you can well understand that creating trains that serve both as somewhere to sleep and as a vehicle that takes you from A to B is quite a lot more complicated.

While we’re still unable to unveil in-depth images of the interior of our bedrooms, like the handful that you can find on our website, the first indispensable stage consists of coming up with a physical space inventory, that is a list of all the different services that will be available on board our trains.

In the case of Midnight Trains, we’ve always thought of our trains as moving social hubs where our passengers can eat, have fun and sleep. However, when starting from a blank slate, these three elements of the experience won’t suffice to define the list of services we intend to offer. Oh no. There are a number of criteria that have to be taken into account:

  • The target markets
  • The specific services expected by those markets
  • The travel habits of those markets
  • Other services that characterise the operator’s market position
  • The technical and operational feasibility of those services
  • The financial viability of those services

Defining the target markets is the first essential step before laying out the list of services, as it will influence every other step too. Some operators target mainly business travellers, like Eurostar and Thalys, while others like Italo target an upmarket mix of business and leisure travellers, and another group like OuiGo in France and Spain and FlixTrain in Germany target a low-cost leisure market.

Each market will have different expectations of specific services and their own priorities, linked with their travel habits, which will influence the list of services you’ll want to offer as a train firm. A business traveller usually travels alone or with people who aren’t part of their usual social circle, and prefers to sleep alone. This sort of traveller would like to arrive at their destination feeling fresh (and freshly shaven), ready for their first meeting of the day, and will likely want a private shower. Those who travel as a family will probably need more space for their bags, as well as specific kid-friendly services (changing tables, baby beds). Once the operator has homed in on the kind of people they want to appeal to, they can start sketching a preliminary list of services.

After that, you’ve got to take into account all the services typically offered by operators in a given market. Certain will want to establish themselves as a luxury offering, anchored in nostalgia for the past, like the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express and its bar carriage with a grand piano (we promise we’ll tell you a little more about that, it’s quite something), or as a more modern brand, like the Italo with its TV screens on every seat (we’ve already told you about those).

And finally, you’ve got to see if this list matches up to the technical and financial reality of operating a railway service in the current age. To put it simply, here’s an example that speaks volumes, an on-board jacuzzi might sound dreamy on paper, but that would evidently pose a lot of technical problems for manufacturers and have an impact on ticket prices for passengers.

It might seem obvious, but the key when homing in on your exact business offer is to balance the expectations and priorities of the public with the positioning and financial constraints of the operator.

The next stage (and last, in this first episode at least) involves splitting this list of services off into the different segments that make up a train – and that’s how you’ll come up with the ‘space inventory’. In reality, a single service could be delivered in several different ways, and in several different places on board.

Food could be served on trolleys (like in places), at tables (like in a restaurant) or in bedrooms (like hotel room service). For its part, the sleeping areas could be made up of seats, or bedrooms for one, two, four or six people. Showers could be communal or private (and linked to the bedrooms). And when it comes to entertainment, that could comprise a selection of films available on a screen in your bedroom or there could be a dedicated cinema or concert room.

To back up all these points, let’s take a simple (and extreme) example: a sleeper train targeting a luxury audience (and specifically, business travellers). A simplified list of services would look like something like this:

  • Proper, horizontal beds (and not just seats)
  • Proper bedding
  • Showers
  • A quality food offering
  • Good internet and a tranquil place to work

Here’s the list of the kind of spaces you’d need on board:

  • Individual bedrooms with private showers
  • A dedicated, seated restaurant space
  • Soundproofed meeting rooms with good Wi-fi
  • A soundproofed conference room with good Wi-fi

Once you’ve pinpointed the spaces you want, you’d then need to see how these could be adapted to a space that’s limited in two ways:

  • The dimensions of a carriage
  • The dimensions of the train (a limited number of carriages)

Once you’ve reached this stage, there’s another step (and yep, that’s what we’ll be covering next week): one that will allow you to actually to sketch a design of the carriages (with a 2D map of the various features and spaces included in each type) and the general composition of the trains (the sum of the carriages in the entire train). We’ll stop there for this week, and see you at the same time, same place next week.

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