Season 4 -  Finding the trains

Episode 1 -  Redesigning second-hand trains – July-December 2020

Romain Payet — The 40 or so people who gave us money did it to give us time to find solutions: findsome rolling stock, pay for it, renovate it and recruit a director of railway operations. But let’s put the latter to one side for now and focus on the rest.

We were now pursuing some second-hand trains that belonged to a very big Spanish manufacturer. So we started working with Yellow Window, an industrial design studio, with a view to revamping these carriages so they were more in keeping with our vision for Midnight Trains.

It all started out pretty theoretical and experimental. We put ourselves in the shoes of our future passengers to lay out the experience and service they would expect, according to their profile. If I’m a family, say, what would I need on board Midnight Trains for my journey to live up to expectations? And what if I’m alone? Or if I am disabled? If I’m a businessperson? What do I need before climbing aboard, once on board and once I’m at my destination? What should the bedroom have in it? What is the ideal size for each bed? What should be on the restaurant menu? These were the sorts of questions we were trying to find answers to, and we immersed ourselves in the subject.

At this point, our main objective was to bring to reality Adrien’s initial vision of a ‘revisited’ night train with exclusively private rooms and a social element in the restaurant. Each time we made progress on any of the above points, we had to think about it in relation to this Spanish rolling stock. Could we introduce a given layout without coming across any regulatory issues or changing the careful weighting of the carriages which allows the train to travel in complete safety? Could we fit it all into the spaces that we had at our disposal? How much would that cost? What material can you do it with and over what sort of time period? Once again, we wanted to create a sense of consistency. Because clearly, we could include a spa and a sauna in the train, but that would cost a lot, involve overcoming a lot of industrial-design challenges, and above all, it wasn’t clear it would increase value for passengers.

Adrien Aumont — It’s also worth noting that we were carrying out this exercise when faced with some rather particular rolling stock. The carriages were only 13 metres long, compared with a typical 26-metre-long Corail carriage in France, for example. Inside, some carriages contained seats, compartments for four people, compartments for two, and finally, a restaurant car.

This was truly hybrid rolling stock, and the work would involve us using two carriages to make up one, which implied that what we were doing here wouldn’t be possible with another second-hand train that we might purchase later on. Our long-term goal now was to launch several lines, not just content ourselves with one. So there was something a little counterintuitive there.

Romain Payet — All this work, which took us up to December 2021, ended up leaving a slightly bitter taste. We were so constrained that we were essentially weighing up whether to chop off our right or left arms. While I might opt for the left one, Adrien would go for the right, and vice versa. Which led us to some decisions that were either impossible to take or we were very reluctant to do. What’s more, we were increasingly of the view that our real objective was crumbling.

Adrien Aumont — For example, we weren’t able to integrate our basic-model berths correctly. This led to uneven, even lopsided spaces. Nonetheless, we did manage to make bedrooms with double beds, bedrooms with bunk beds for those travelling in twos who weren’t couples, but not the rest. And on top of that, the distribution of the inventory didn’t really suit us, it wasn‘t ideal. There were too many problems for the price the Spanish manufacturer was asking for.

Romain Payet — And in fact, it took us a long time to even find out the price. Because on top of only drip-feeding us information about the carriages, the people we were in contact with at the Spanish manufacturer weren’t very forthcoming about a price tag. And when they finally did, the sum was made all the more excessive by the number of faults and constraints the carriages would impose on us.

Their fate was sealed when we pitched the idea to new investors. The latter weren’t those who had given us money during fundraising. These ones had a rather different profile, and were able to free up the capital required to buy trains. But when they listened to us speak, they grimaced at something in particular. As Luigi, who had already audited them for another client, had suggested, the maintenance documents were basically nonexistent. As for the maintenance costs, these were extremely high. From an investor’s point of view, this was an unacceptable fault.

Fortunately, in parallel with our discussions over these trains, we had explored other avenues. And not just any old ones.

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