A rail exception that proves the rule

S03E04: the final stages of approval

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 final 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. In a railway sector where responsibilities are fragmented, manufacturers legion and with a growing need for interoperability, what manufacturing rules must trains respect and how can you ensure they are compatible with the existing infrastructure?

The very qualities of railway transport can present faults, too: the contact between the trains and tracks is so slight that it requires very little energy… which also explains why you must brake rather far in advance (1,000 metres at 160km/hour or 3,300 metres at 300km/hour). That means trains can’t get too close to each other and while signalling may help spread them out, you still have to plan their movements and take into account the necessarily finite capacity of the railway infrastructure. Add to that the difficulties stemming from different speeds and the limited potential to overtake others, and you can easily understand why coming up with train timetables is such a mighty task. In other words: the train paths, those routes along with the trains are allowed to pass, are the key element of the railway network, and that’s why building works often tend to play with nerves of those who define said paths.

Everything starts around three or four years in advance. Before planning train timetables, you plan the building works. Maintenance, regeneration or development: you assign to each of these operations predetermined windows. The impact of works on commercial transport is sometimes negligible: on suburban lines, they take place at work and are only likely to disturb night owls, as the really late trains must be cancelled; as for lines with mixed freight and passenger transport, there’s no good time to carry them out.

In France, ageing infrastructure and operational methods mean a surveillance period of an hour is required during the day, when visual inspections of the works can take place. The network is sometimes set up to allow this to happen: in Switzerland, Germany and Italy, the tracks work both ways and it’s possible to switch from one to the other while the other is closed for works. There’s less of this in france, making the impact of maintenance a little more problematic.

The desire to make works as economically viable as possible often leads to the disruption lasting even longer: safety procedures required before any personnel and heavy goods can cross the tracks can take half an hour, both before and after the operation itself.

The French infrastructure manager, faced with the financial difficulties that the latest performance contact with the State doesn’t tackle, can often be heavy-handed, preferring to cut all traffic for six hours instead of four during the day, or eight hours instead of six at night – leading some observers to comment that the railway networks exists more to carry out works than to allow trains to circulate.

As you may have guessed, here at Midnight Trains, we’re very much getting stuck into these subjects ourselves. There’s no straightforward solution, but it’s clear that the renaissance of the sleeper train can only properly take place if the infrastructure is readily available to us.

Happily, the network is often linked up to alternative routes. To go to Italy, for example, you could travel via the Marienne valley in Savoie or via Switzerland. Clearly, that would also require that those different routes coordinate with each other on an international level. When the route is on a freight corridor defined as such by the European Commission, a specific entity is charged with the coordination. On the other hand, in other cases, you might travel through a grey zone, you must collaborate with the capacity buyer – as is the case for us at Midnight Trains – to facilitate that coordination.

Once you’ve sorted that out, you can start to plan commercial services. All the entities grouped under the title capacity buyer must declare their needs in April of the previous year. In reality, the process often starts even earlier, particularly on denser networks like those in Germany and Switzerland. Where the timetable might be quite repetitive, the industrial needs are taken into account first, then the more punctual needs will be factored into the 24 hours of the day.

As for international traffic, the process starts with a feasibility study in January of the previous year, during which the different infrastructure managers coordinate with each other, with a definitive order coming in mid-April. The requests are sorted through (and responded to) in the month of September. Just in time to open the sales of the very start of the annual service, which starts during December. Sometimes a few extra delays can get in the way, of course.

European regulation also allows for the possibility of signing a framework agreement, which is a reciprocal arrangement (lasting several years) between the infrastructure manager and a railway business. The allocation of a railway path generally doesn’t last a period of several years, but there is commitment on the part of the infrastructure manager to honour the order following a certain number of constraints agreed in advance, such as the itinerary, the length of the journey or indeed the timetabled interval between departure and arrival. For its part, the railway business commits itself to fulfilling that capacity.

A revamp of all these sorts of processes on a European level should take place in the years to come: that’s the idea behind TTR (TimeTable Redesign), whose key purpose is to allow the allocation of railway path for a duration of well over a year, all while retaining sufficient capacity for services requiring more flexibility such as transport of merchandise. It’s a huge, logical evolution, in an industry quite often reluctant to change.

So, who can order capacity? Railway operators can clearly request access to railway paths. To do so you must hold a railway business licence and a safety security certificate, which we’ve spoken about in a previous edition of this season. In the case of Midnight Trains, we’re not quite there yet. What’s more, in France, official network documents state it is available to ‘all those with commercial and public-service reasons [...] such as a combined transport operator, a port, a loader, a forwarding agent or an organisational railway transport authority’, all those called ‘authorised candidates’. But when it comes to circulation, however, there’s no doubt about it: the train must be operated by a railway business, whose responsibility it is to ensure everything conforms to the regulations.

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