S03E02: Getting the go-ahead

A rail exception that proves the rule

Since the first edition of Midnight Weekly went out, we’ve run various series of articles allowing you to find out more about how we’re going about creating our ‘hotel on rails’ company (and you’ve lapped them up). So by popular demand, here’s another season; this is the second of four instalments.

Following our beginners’ guides to buying trains and designing trains, this new season aims to help you better understand railway regulation in Europe, and thus everything Midnight Trains is having to reckon with before we can welcome you on board our trains from early 2024. Since European railway space was created, there’s no need to be a historic operator to run rail services on the Continent. But what authorisations do you have to obtain first?

The first (rather administrative) step is that you need to obtain a railway business licence. Usually you will have to go to the transport ministry of the state where the business is based. The professional capacity of the management team, the internal business structure, the initial business plan: the operator’s pedigree is subject to great scrutiny. The business must also have a capital stock greater than €1.5 million (a little less in the case of freight transport). It then remains to demonstrate that the business has civil responsibility coverage: you have to be insured damages up to €45 million.

It takes two months for the verdict to come through, and if you get the go-ahead, an official ministerial statement will be issued. The licence will be valid throughout the European Union, making it very useful for companies looking to operate international services.

Next, you’ll need to obtain a safety certificate. When the market opened up in the 2000s, new operators had to show that they had all the necessary procedures in place given the risks inherent in rail travel.

In each member state, a national safety authority was founded: in France, for example, the Établissement Public de Sécurité Ferroviaire (EPSF) was set up in 2006. This organisation was charged with checking every new company had their own security management procedures in place. Inspired by ISO norms, it sets out the responsibilities of the operator, required safety procedures and how firms can continue to improve the latter as time goes on: everything, in other words, that will help guarantee the operator carries out its business with an adequate level of care and seriousness. They are quite unlike the safety rules for air travel, as the globalisation of the latter makes running international services a little more straightforward (pilots being able to take off and land almost anywhere, once trained, qualified on the given plane and as long as they speak English at the least).

Railway safety is a lot less standardised. Beyond the internal organisation of the business, the latter must also respect the rules of the networks its services use. It’s fair to say that the sector is pretty balkanised: its British roots may have influenced its development – that’s why trains travel on the left in France – but each country has its own signalling system and regulations. To get trains on tracks, you have to come up with internal procedures on training of personnel, what to do in normal and unusual circumstances, on how trains are laid out, and management of subcontractors – all of which can have an impact on the level of safety. The contents of regulations clearly depend on the service offered. And while passenger services bring their own challenges, freight regulations aren’t necessarily any simpler, as you must come up with rules on the management of dangerous materials.

For a new operator, the preparatory work in the run-up to the initial services is pretty long-winded: it’ll take around 18 months. In order that the procedures are adapted to the specific needs of the business, you will often have to test out various iterations of the internal rules, carefully delegate responsibilities to different parties and detail the org chart accordingly.

But even once you’re running services, the hard work isn’t over: then you’ll have to put into place all the procedures agreed by the safety body. One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is feedback: how events affecting safety are analysed, taken into account and if necessary shared with other actors in the railway sector. And then there’s all the documentation that needs to be done, and the management of expertise too. No question of avoiding it all. A true police service of the rails, EPSF continues to scrutinise all activity: every railway company is regularly audited, with staff clearance passes checked on the ground. The safety certificate, meanwhile, must be renewed every five years.

As of two years now, the process of obtaining a certificate has changed: a new package of directive and European regulations – known as the Fourth Railway Package – was adopted in 2016, and now it’s the European Railway Agency that’s responsible for enforcing them. All decisions are made in concert with the national safety  authorities. The political goal of these reforms? To reassert the existence of a European railway space, all while simplifying and standardising the rules. The result? Cross-border travel is that little bit simpler, and so too is obtaining safety certificates for multiple networks.

And that’s how rail companies are born. We hope the complexity of everything involved in this edition has kept you reading this far, keen to find out what happens next. In our third instalment next week, we’ll be tackling the approval process for the trains themselves.

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