Season 9 - Nicolas’ tasks

Episode 3 - How rolling stock redefined our strategy: train carriages

Nicolas Bargelès — Let's move on to rolling stock now, and more precisely, to train carriages. When I joined Adrien and Romain, they had already decided on carriages pulled by a locomotive rather than for self-propelled elements. It’s a decision I totally agree with. Because, even if the latter make up the majority of daytime passenger transport, they’re not as suitable for night trains - especially for running on several different networks.

First of all, when travelling to ten countries, self-propelled elements are more difficult to approve abroad. For example, they generate harmonic currents linked to the power electronics, which changes the signalling behind them. A poorly adapted train can literally change a light from red to green, or vice versa, after passing through the tracks. Which could obviously cause serious problems. Many things need to be tested, with complex security demonstrations. And as each network is different, despite common European legislation, national regulation varies everywhere. This applies to towed carriages, but approval is even more difficult for self-propelled train sets. A motorised system distributed across all the bodies causes a vibration effect that can be unpleasant. This makes them heavier and can make the suspension less effective. You’d have a worse night’s sleep than in a carriage which is basically a simple box placed on bogies.

The simplicity of this rolling stock, compared to self-propelled elements, gives us more freedom for the interior layout of the cabins, which is an immense added value of Midnight Trains. Adrien and Romain had created diagrams of the interiors of the carriages, which have evolved, but remain innovative, modern and rather pleasant. That’s really the heart of their project. In comparison to other night train providers, ours needs to use space so as to create a new experience. However, we have to resolve the contrast between technical systems – doors, air conditioning, electronics, etc. — and design. We don’t want a motor getting in the way of this. The question of design, such as adding a Queen Size bed or a shower in a cabin, changes the distribution of masses and can complicate the approval process.

This is where our chosen builder comes into play. He has significant experience in the field and already knows how to manufacture and have night trains approved, whether they’re carriages containing cabins or restaurant carriages. By working with him and ordering equipment that already exists, but can be adapted to our needs, we’re avoiding starting from scratch, with a blank page. He’s already largely familiar with the additional rules of each country, compiled in a document called Notified National Technical Rules. He knows the Italian requirements on emergency exits and fire/smoke detection systems linked to the large number of transalpine tunnels. He’s not fazed by the importance Switzerland puts on small radius curves. It enables us, even today, to move forward calmly and collectively on the issue of sharing the burden.

But it would be wrong to believe that all headaches are over when you’ve had your carriages approved. Infrastructure managers can impose rules on train operators like Midnight Trains. Even equipment authorised to travel at 200 kilometres per hour on the French network, can be limited to 140 kilometres per hour by SNCF Réseau, so as not to damage the already ageing French rail infrastructure. Of all the lines we plan to use, it’s in the worst condition, excluding high-speed lines. Finally, and perhaps the most difficult thing to grasp at first glance, there’s the question of the electrical power used by the carriage, which is received through the catenary. However, between the two, there’s the locomotive pantograph. If the model isn’t suitable for the lines used by the train, with fourteen carriages and a restaurant car, the catenary could melt, especially when at a stop, at a station or in the sidings. A train made up of carriages that are too heavy won’t be able to attack the Alps, because it will be limited by the available power. A bit like on certain lines in the South West of France where the TGVs are forced to operate at a quarter of their power to avoid shutting down the electricity sector. Many of these installations were designed in the 1940s and 1950s.

In short, when designing the rolling stock, you have to keep an eye on a lot of parameters which may not comply with technical standards. In terms of rolling stock, the decisions began with choosing an experienced manufacturer and then working on moving from an existing model to future Midnight Trains carriages. Carriages that, obviously, must be towed with a locomotive. Which will lead me to a new assessment on rolling stock.

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