Season 9 - Nicolas’ tasks

Episode 6 - Kicking off conversation with infrastructure managers

Nicolas Bargelès — Since we began taking stock of the various issues we’re up against, some immense entities have been hanging on the horizon. We’ve mentioned them very briefly before: they’re infrastructure managers.

Little known to the general public, they’re key players in the entire organisation of European rail, since they’re responsible for managing the rail networks. The term covers all types of entities that manage rail networks, regions or in certain cases, private companies. But as far as we’re concerned, these are national, public or semi-public entities. In France, it’s SNCF Réseau; in Italy, RFI (Rete ferroviaria italiana); in Switzerland, CFF Infra (Chemins de Fer Fédéraux suisses) and, in Spain, ADIF (Administrador de infraestructuras ferroviarias). They must treat all applicants on the same footing and also apply a single price scale to them.

With them, we’re discussing three key subjects. The first is the reservation of train routes. For example, our trains will leave around 7pm or 8pm and arrive around 8am or 9am. This is key - a night train that leaves too early or arrives too late won’t coax people to stop flying and get the train - even if what we offer is a total reinvention of the format. Then, there’s the construction work, which most infrastructure managers schedule at night, so as not to interfere with daytime train traffic. They’re generally carried out in increments of four to six hours. In France, sometimes it’s eight hours. The impact is all the more significant, as they’re sometimes carried out in so-called “simultaneous” closure. This means you can’t travel on the adjacent lane either, so the entire line is closed for business. The impact of the construction works on traffic therefore varies depending on the infrastructure managers, their industrial processes and the condition of their routes.

Obviously, the infrastructure managers are from big companies designed for national operators - in the days of integrated railways, they included the historic operators. For this reason, they’re very unaccustomed to dealing with companies the size of Midnight Trains. In the railway industry, a startup is a rare thing and so is sometimes met with distrust. Given the funds and the time required, there’s a natural fear that a startup will have collapsed before even getting a single train running. However, most infrastructure managers were open and attentive towards us. From their point of view, they need to open up the rail system and run more trains. It’s part of their MO, and so what we could offer is economically of interest to them. The networks we travel on generally aren’t saturated, and their maintenance consists mainly of fixed costs. So, the more trains that run, the lower the strain, and the more demand is stoked.

When we contacted infrastructure managers, 80% were kind and generous, while the remaining 20% were pretty circumspect, for all the reasons mentioned. The kind ones treated us as equals. For those who were suspicious, it’s par for the course - some people need to see our trains running to completely believe it’s possible. On the French side, bigger institutions are generally more attuned to our needs. Even SNCF Voyageurs sometimes struggles to run its night trains on the network.

On the Italian and Swiss side, we’re not directly involved with the managers, because we have traction partners. Either way though, we have been well received. In Italy, all our potential collaborators were very attentive. They’re accustomed to new entrants in the passenger transport market, thanks to the transalpine presence of Italo, which is a real juggernaut in the field. Of course, there’s a few little quirks that will cause problems, such as banning locomotive maneuvers at Milano Centrale station, but that can be managed. In Switzerland, the people we spoke with were also open-minded - although they have mixed memories of the night trains that used to pass through Switzerland to go to France. At the time, their French counterpart tended to skip over the constraints by forcing them to adapt.

But really, that’s where the problem lies - not talking to every single infrastructure manager, but getting them around the same table to coordinate. Because there’s no point pushing back French works, only to be stopped by Swiss works a few kilometers further down the line. Or take an alternative route from Italy, only to realise that it’s closed on the Swiss side. And it’s just not that easy, as they’re not used to running international night trains anymore. This poses a number of problems for us, as infrastructure maintenance is carried out on an industrial scale and is fixed several years in advance. Problems which, fortunately, aren’t impossible to solve.

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