Season 9 - Nicolas’ projects

Episode 2 - How network constraints redefined our strategy

Nicolas Bargelès — Okay, let’s kick off with the network. To take stock of the constraints linked to the fundamental part of all railway activity, Adrien, Romain and I started with the map that you can find on our website. It’s shaped like a star, centred on the city of Paris - which could well be the first node of our hub strategy. Its rail branches extend to Edinburgh, Copenhagen and Berlin via Hamburg, Venice via Milan, Rome via Florence, Barcelona, ​​Madrid and Porto. That’s six lines I need to review to establish the varying difficulties, and whether they’re even feasible. Because despite the mountains – metaphorical and real – that lie ahead, we’re looking for solutions. There are always solutions, and we’ll be covering them a fair amount in this series.

To begin, let's look at the British market, which we were eyeing up because of the significant air traffic between its cities and those in Western Europe. First of all, since getting there involves going through the Channel Tunnel, all trains have to undergo drastic security checks and border controls by the British and French authorities. Since the UK is no longer in Europe, there’s X-rays to avoid the risk of attacks and for customs controls. It's a little painful for passengers on a night train, but not impossible to navigate. Others have done it before. The same goes for the specific fire/smoke standards of the tunnel. They’re super draconian, but can be worked around. Some readers will remember the night train project when the tunnel opened in 1994. The equipment had been ordered, but it went on to enjoy a second life in Canada. Then, going beyond London, we come up against the size and shape of Britain. It’s much narrower than that of continental Europe, and hasn’t changed since the invention of the railway. Getting a train going with those ancient dimensions would require the rebuilding bridges and tunnels... Or going back to the drawing board with the rolling stock we have in mind.

In Spain, the problem is different. The track gauge isn’t the same as in France: it’s 1668 mm beyond the Pyrenees, compared to 1435 mm elsewhere. There was a time when there was a method to “simply” change the bogies by lifting the coach bodies. Then, the manufacturer Talgo built trains with wheels which didn’t form an axle, but were independent of each other. They were unlocked before changing their spacing using a system of slides. Then, we relocked the entire system; giving time to change locomotives. Twenty minutes later the train was off again. All this no longer exists, but the Spanish have started long-term work to connect to the European network. To get to Madrid, we’ll have to wait for certain infrastructure to be completed, in particular the Basque Y (connecting the border to Bilbao and Vitoria), as well as a missing link between Vitoria and Burgos, because further south, they have already started adhering to the normal distance. Madrid is postponed until this is sorted, while Portuguese cities are postponed indefinitely. And for good reason - so far, no deadline has been announced for the installation of railway tracks.

I’m also reflecting on some subjects with more difficult deadlines, where time constraints are concerned. It takes a very long time to get to Copenhagen by train and it’s not feasible in any way, other than if you leave very early from Paris or arrive late in Denmark. This limits the possibility of a night train on such a journey, but if we’re patient, the future Fehmarn tunnel will cut almost two hours from the journey between Hamburg and Copenhagen. Check back in 2030 for that one.

It wasn’t clear whether we could use the shortest route through Germany, particularly for construction reasons. I explained to Adrien and Romain that, on the contrary, to get to Italy, we can’t use the most direct route, which is the one passing through the Maurienne valley, via Modane. It’s a very steep route, which includes significant slopes, and so is challenging for the heavy weight of our proposed night trains. A second locomotive would be needed on both the French and Italian sides because when heading for Italy, Modane isn’t at the top of the line. In addition, Italian locomotives have difficulty getting to this station, because of the electrification at 1500 volts in France and 3000 volts on the transalpine side. The old machines could do this at half-power, but the new ones can’t. The electronic power doesn’t support this. Plus, on this line, construction work prevents traffic every night of the year, in particular regarding the build of the Fréjus base tunnel, which will definitely change the situation. Therefore, we’ll have to go through Switzerland, and add in a country with all its constraints, starting with an additional infrastructure manager. At first, it felt like I was crossing all the iconic destinations off of Adrien and Romain’s list.

Adrien Aumont — Based on Nicolas’ list of Kafkaesque constraints, getting Midnight Trains up and running seems beyond the realm of possibility. Except that we recruited him because of what he can deliver: solutions. Starting with a strategy that we established together - to initially focus on five lines to Mediterranean destinations. We’ll get stuck into that a little later. In the meantime, let’s go through the limitations on rolling stock.

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