Saison 2 /  Breaking into the industry

Episode 1 - “That’s impossible, guys”

Adrien Aumont For us, the lockdown offered a pretty opportune moment to immerse ourselves in the industry. In my case, that involved getting in touch with as many experts as possible to lay out our vision of things, and confirm or find objections to our initial analyses.

Romain Payet At that point, those expert opinions were all the more important because we weren’t looking for someone to tell us whether it would work or not. Nothing was set in stone and we knew it. We didn’t know how we would fund the venture, we had to find trains, we didn’t know whether we could be profitable, and so on. In fact, beyond our gut feeling, we weren’t even sure if it was a good idea. We had brought together a lot of data but had no certainty about anything.

Adrien Aumont In fact, in this sort of situation, you start with a bird’s eye view of the railways. There were no limits: all we knew was that we wanted to create a high-quality night train, featuring only private cabins and making this mode of transport a truly lively place, thanks to a restaurant and bar. Logistically speaking, we started from the premise that we would have carriages attached to a locomotive, departing from Paris and ending up in Venice. Except that the more we spoke with experts, the more obstacles we came across. While a gaggle of specialists insisted that it would be ‘impossible’, others helped us think of ways to overcome these stumbling blocks.

The first of them is a friend of a friend who we’ll call X. He had a big job in a freight railway business. According to our research, it was the railway sub-sector that most closely aligned with that of the sleeper train. They both involve travelling at night, and also crossing borders. What’s more, the freight sector had dealt with teething problems as the rail market was opened up to competition. This was the guy who would inform us that because there’s ‘Europe’ for trains, it’s difficult to cross borders by rail, for several reasons.

First, because most locomotives don’t work across borders, due to issues around energy supply and signalling, among other things. He explained that we would essentially have to change it at every border crossing, but also that it might not be so difficult because in the freight sector, it was a simple operation. It took no longer than half an hour and wouldn’t wake up our passengers. This was a crucial realisation: we would have to find a new locomotive for each country. Same goes for divers, as they’d have to speak the language of each country they’re passing through. And that’s only one example – one that sums up the way something that appears simple can become incredibly complex, then simple, then complex again.

X also helped me understand that when you travel at night, other operators don’t pose a problem. The real worry? Construction and repair works, which most often take place at night. But once again, he explained that there was a way to get around that too, that navigating the repair timetable to let trains through is an art. A tricky art, but an art all the same.

X, who has remained one of our key interlocutors and sparring partners, then put me in touch with PA, the director of rolling stock at his business. On top of working in freight, he had a background in sleeper trains. So he turned out to be another precious source of wisdom. To start with, he knew exactly the sort of rolling stock we were after: carriages pulled by a locomotive and not self-propelled trains as is the norm nowadays. Without discouraging us, he let us know that it would be difficult to find this on the second-hand market and that, even if we managed to, it wouldn’t be straightforward to repurpose them as the sleeper trains we had imagined for ourselves. It could change their weight and balance, and risk making them lose the approval allowing them to move around. He also helped us get to grips with the amount of water storage required, the electricity consumption, and the potential resistance to heat and cold, which were very different to that of a day service.

As for new rolling stock, he reminded us that manufacturers producing anything other than self-propelling carriages were few and far between. And when they did do it, it was most often for states, who placed large orders and for whom they built customised trains. That would involve monstrous R&D costs and just as eye-popping commercial contracts. New knew that the hunt for rolling stock would be a veritable treasure hunt, one during which X wouldn’t abandon us. He also gave me the numbers of several brokers who could help us and a rough estimate of the price of second-hand carriages and how much it would cost to do them up. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be that precise about costs. One of the reasons for this was that most rolling stock on the market contained asbestos. As a result, it would be forbidden to sell them unless the asbestos was removed, which would make costing incredibly complex, as the owners would have to put forward money before handing over their carriages. In short, even if you might find one or two carriages to form your first train, it would be difficult to roll out services more widely.

Finally, there’s one last expert I’d like to cite: M, who had formerly ran freight travel for a region in SNCF Réseau. He perfectly complemented the expertise of the other two, as he explained how to define a railway route, how to obtain timetable slots on the French (and international) network, and more broadly, how to make our sleeper train from Paris to Venice a reality. This was all vital information and we can only thank those who’ve decided to help us. The people who, instead of branding our idea a supposed ‘impossibility’, have decided to support us in making it possible. Because it’s through a mix of those meetings and Romain’s research that we’ve been able to advance, step by step.

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