Season 9 - Nicolas’ projects

Episode 4 - How rolling stock redefined our strategy: locomotives

Nicolas Bargelès – Obviously you can’t talk about carriages, without talking about locomotives. In a perfect world, we would have just one type, which would be capable of pulling our night train carriages in any country in Europe. But in reality, it's a little more complicated. It’s not impossible in the long term, but short term, could be tricky. Especially when you want to run trains in several different countries and therefore have to rely on several different types of locomotives. There was a time when, in addition to the issues of track gauge, an interoperable locomotive had to support the different tensions of the different state networks. In Europe, there are four: 1,500, 3,000, 15,000 and 25,000 volts, alternating their current for high voltage and direct current for low voltage. But these days, things are more complex than that. Even when the voltage is the same, in Belgium and Italy, which are both electrified at 3,000 volts, the catenaries do not have the same articulation. Which means that, if we wanted to use a single locomotive for these two countries, the bow of its pantograph would have to be wide enough for Italy and narrow enough for Belgium. Otherwise it would be torn off when crossing certain structures.

Ironically, from the 1980s, the emergence of onboard (and often national) security systems has made interoperability way more complex. Between Italy and France, the specifications of the two systems (KVB and SCMT) make their coexistence difficult on the same locomotive, because you can’t install two antennas in the same place. Not to mention that modifying existing locomotives is often expensive, as you have to get them re-approved, because demonstrations and “non-regression” tests must be carried out. It’s just about checking that the modifications don’t disrupt other systems. These fixed costs are generally unaffordable for a small fleet of locomotives.

As you’ll see from these examples, the obstacles to locomotive interoperability are numerous. And, by extension, the idea of ​​having a single locomotive model for Midnight Trains seems difficult to contemplate. In fact, we’re quickly abandoning the idea on a European scale to concentrate on rail freight corridors, i.e. the main routes for transporting goods by rail. Unlike passenger carriers, freight operators need to cross borders without too many complications. This gave rise to a market and the production of interoperable locomotives on corridors connecting certain countries. Unfortunately for us, there’s no freight corridor between France and Italy, and even fewer with Switzerland. However, there’s a massive corridor called DACHINL (Germany Austria Switzerland Italy Netherlands), which does not include France. Today, there are only 30 locomotives capable of going from France to Italy, and vice versa - and all belong to the SNCF. But as we saw previously, the transition between the two countries is complex. Freight operators aren’t interested in it, and manufacturers aren’t working on new machines. Which means that the freight industry isn’t interested. It’s a real chicken or egg situation.

However, things could change by 2027-2028. As the fleets have recently been renewed, manufacturers are now looking for ways to drive growth. They’re more open to developing new machines for new markets, like the one we’re trying to make. To be among the first customers of these new locomotives and be able to use a single fleet of them, we’ve got to stay on their case. In the meantime, we’re looking to change locomotives at the Franco-Swiss and Italian-Swiss borders for the Paris-Milan-Venice line. It might seem awfully complex, but it’s not too bad really. If you’re well equipped and efficient, it only takes about twenty minutes. The problem is more economical than technical. Because with a small series – three French locomotives, three Swiss and three Italian – we will need to have three different forms of maintenance, and larger quantities of spare parts in stock.

For Paris-Barcelona and Paris-Nice, that will be easier. The first is equipped with a high-speed line between the French border and Barcelona, which we can pass over. The second, although very Mediterranean, is Franco-French. However, it won't be easy. Around 2027-2028, the Marseille-Nice line will be equipped with ETCS (European Train Control System) at the same time as the old signaling will be removed. The only problem is that the locomotives available on the market are not adapted to this unified European standard. It’s a pain for us, as much as it is for other operators. There are of course bumps along the way, but there are always solutions.

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