Season 9 - Nicolas’ projects

Episode 5 - The headache that is maintenance

Nicolas Bargelès — In the rail industry, maintenance is the centre of everything. From the small bolts that need changing at regular intervals, to the air conditioning or braking systems, everything requires maintenance. In Europe, it’s divided into four main categories: execution, which is the screwing of bolts on the train; engineering, which dictates which bolts to screw; planning, which ensures the train enters the town centre at the right speed so the bolt can be changed before there’s a problem; and supervision, which ensures the first three are working properly. That’s how big of a deal it all is. To give you an overall idea, the purchase price of rolling stock represents 40% of what it will cost over its entire lifespan. The remaining 60% is made up of maintenance costs.

Obviously, the maintenance of a train isn’t done on a station platform, with two or three agents on the tracks. To repair or maintain a carriage or locomotive, it must be moved to a maintenance centre which is generally located near a station. Once we have this in mind, there’s a fundamental question: should we carry out maintenance ourselves, or subcontract it? In the first instance, it would be a huge cost for the opening of the first lines, but that would even out as we open more and more lines. In the second case, it’s necessary to call on an external service provider. However, on French territory, which remains the nerve centre of Midnight Trains, there are very few. There are significantly more in Italy.

Theoretically, we’re leaning towards the second option. But it prompts another question: where should we locate this maintenance? In Italy, where there are plenty of maintenance operators? Perhaps, but if we did that, launching trains to Berlin and Copenhagen could be tricky. We will have to have a second maintenance centre because, without it, our rolling stock to the east and north of Europe would be out of service for too long. To avoid this type of problem, we must establish a hub-and-spoke model i.e. develop our first lines around a central point where we can install our maintenance, as well as our sales force and headquarters. Because of course, they need to be in an effective, convenient place too. If we installed all of this elsewhere, in Italy or Spain, we’d have to focus on that to develop our next lines. Except that as we’ve seen, these markets aren’t all easy to grapple with, and from a commercial point of view, not that interesting. This is where all the different assessments we’ve made – the networks, rolling stock, maintenance – echo each other. Together, they’re gradually shaping the way we’ll overcome these constraints to create Midnight Trains, which after all, must be driven by the size of the potential markets.

We have decided to centralise our hub in Paris, with the five first lines departing from there. So I started making a list of companies that might be interested in doing the maintenance for passenger trains. There aren’t many though, and they’re struggling to see how they would fit with our dynamics. Among them, there’s the SNCF, which has been in our midst for a while. They’re struggling to see whether they should promote their savoir-faire to carry out maintenance for other operators, or keep that knowledge to themselves. It looks like they’ll opt for the former, by creating a company called Masteris, which specialises in railway maintenance and engineering.

The final problem though: where would the maintenance be carried out? There was a large complex near the Gare de Lyon in Paris, where we could have located the activity, in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges. Unfortunately, it’s being dismantled and replaced by a maintenance centre planned for commuter trains. Another spanner in the works then. But a spanner that, like the others, there’s no doubt we will find a solution for.

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