Remember Midnight Trains? This night train start-up wants to link France to Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Denmark and even Scotland. And this from 2024. How? By offering comfort. A ‘hotel on rails’. Midnight Trains has offered an update on the proceedings.
Aumont is adamant Midnight Trains will soon have checked three necessary boxes to run night trains across Europe.
1: Finding rolling stock
“When you set up a sleeper train company, you have to buy carriages pulled by locomotives, a little like the Corail trains we’re familiar with in France, with similar rail cars in many other countries”, Aumont says.
“The only problem is that there are almost no manufacturers or production lines in place, while if you were after a multiple-unit train, there are loads of avenues you could explore. So we’ve had to be very creative in finding manufacturers who hadn’t stopped their producing processes, ones that still had the capacity and bandwidth to take on a small client like us, while also being able to deliver. The stock also had to be available at competitive prices, as we’re not a state and we’re not paying with citizens’ taxes. In the end, we managed to find the manufacturer we needed and secured the production line, which was our first major milestone”
2: Paying for the rolling stock
“We made the decision to not pay for this asset ourselves as quite simply we don’t have the history that would allow for us to fund it. Instead, we’ve decided to acquire it via a leasing model, with a ROSCO, that is a rolling stock company”, Aumont says.
“We’ve identified the right partner. It is helping us acquire those carriages, is responsible for paying for that asset and will lease them to us from the very first month. This is another important milestone for us. That’s because, unlike in the flight sector, leasing is not a common occurrence. Once again, we’ve had to convince our partner business to get involved, and this was easier for the locomotives than the rest of the carriages.”
3: Financing the business
“We’ve conducted an initial stage of fundraising among some ‘business angels’. Now we’ve got to explore other avenues to finance our business and launch our first line. This part really is without precedent, as there are no structured investment funds in this area. That’s why we’ve got to really go out of the way to find this investment and secure investors who will take the risk and support us on our journey. Then we’ll really be able to get going.”
“We’ll be able to start building our trains and give you a specific launch date. And we’re still aiming for the end of 2024, even though that may have to change. This is very much a long-term project.”
“Next, we’ll have to face many other difficult obstacles, but ones which have precedents. In the past, many trains have been built, tested and approved. We’ve been able to test commercial viability, see services in operation, learn from contingencies. That’s why we’re recruiting, and why we’ve already recruited, people who are experts on those subjects.”
“That means we should be able to find easy solutions to our troubles in future. Those we’re currently trying to sort out had no easy fixes, and meant we had to be both creative and innovative.”
Midnight Trains’ vision
Midnight Trains says it’s “reinventing the night train to make it the most comfortable and sustainable mode of transport of the century, as an alternative to medium-haul flights.”
“We’re starting from the basis that flights won’t be ‘clean’ before the end of the century, because despite what people might say, the technology just isn’t there. Whether it’s biofuels, electricity, hydrogen or another energy source, these industries are only just getting going. What’s more, once a technology is developed, it’ll take a long time for it to be rolled out.”
“Some researchers think that when a technology is developed, it’ll take between 25 and 30 years for the entire flight industry to adopt it. So while some may say it’s possible this could happen by 2050, that’s above all because this date simply sounds good.”
MT is aiming at providing an alternative to medium-haul flights.
“The [night train] offering out there has dwindled over the past century. To the point where twenty years ago, sleeper trains had pretty much died out. It goes without saying that at this moment in time, the night train had lost a lot of its glamour”, Adrien Aumont says.
“Some are about to be relaunched by exactly the same firms that stopped the services at the time – which must feel like a pretty disagreeable position for them – with exactly the same old trains from two decades ago.”
“For our part, we think that if you believe in the night train – and we really mean it – the product must be truly invented.”
“Reviving sleeper services isn’t an end in itself”, Aumont says.
“In fact, they must be adapted for the twenty-first century, and that’s the only way people will move away from planes. Because while many are already fiercely convinced of the fact that it’s necessary for us to travel on these polluting vehicles, others won’t give up so easily unless there’s a good alternative available.”
Midnight Train’s vision consists of three pillars. “The first, which is very key, is that we think the night train must, in our era, offer only private couchettes. We don’t want people to share compartments with three, four or five strangers. We must allow people their privacy.”
“The nighttime is the most intimate and personal time of day that we have, and we think that it’s important to respect that. What’s more, if the night is at the very heart of this means of transport, that means we will also strive to provide quality bedding. Good soundproofing will also be necessary to prevent people from being disturbed by their neighbours, or to even be able to detect noise outside even if they are awake. Ours will be a private sleeper train experience, with good bedding and soundproofing: a night service that puts privacy at the heart of the journey.”
Keeping passengers busy
The second pillar?
“Once we’ve seen to the seven or eight hours of solid sleep on board our trains, there will also be three or fours in which to keep our passengers occupied why they are awake. We think that people will want to stretch their limbs and relax in a convivial setting.
There will be communal spaces, a restaurant, a bar, and it might play into the imagery of the Orient Express. “But above all, we’re telling ourselves that it’ll be a place like any other, like a hotel, where you can eat and drink stuff of quality. Better things than what you’ll currently find in a train or a plane. So there’ll be room for both privacy and conviviality on board.”
Three: the digital aspect of things.
“I don’t know if you’ve recently tried to buy a night-train ticket through the SNCF website or via ÖBB, the Austrian railway company, which are the two current market leaders, but it feels like something from the Soviet Union”, Aumont quips.
“It’s laughable, it’s hard to find a worse user experience out there. The problem isn’t necessarily what you can see or the offering itself, but the inventory. Inventories are currently sold as seats in first or second classes, not as beds in compartments for one, two, three or four people.”
“That’s why they should be reconfigured, so they correspond to the layout of a night train. What’s more, as you’ll be spending a good dozen hours on board on our trains, we’ll be offering a sort of ‘pocket concierge’ service that will allow you to reserve a table at the restaurant, and to order or pay with the click of a button. Something that’s available in most restaurants nowadays anyway.”
“We also think that the railway industry is subject to so many unpredictable factors, perhaps more so in the night-train industry than elsewhere.”
“That means that, if your train is delayed, you should be able to be reimbursed before leaving. That’s what happens in an Uber or any other similar service.”
“To sum up, we want to offer a digital experience that, on top of enhancing the general experience on board Midnight Trains, lives up to the high-tech era we currently live in. It will be a product of its time, available at competitive prices when compared with flying, because transport is a sector that’s really driven by pricing.
“But of course you’ve also got to bear in mind that we’ll be competing with planes, which come with a lot of other hidden costs. The taxi if you’re leaving early in the morning, the cost of extra baggage, the cost of choosing your own seat, the cost of the hotel you may need to stump up for too. And also, plane ticket prices are increasing rapidly right now. We may even be offering similar prices full stop to planes, even when you don’t take into account all those hidden factors. At least, that’s what we hope.”
Aumont wants a high frequency of its night trains.
“Most of those relaunching sleeper services today have forgotten, often for lack of rolling stock, that frequent services will be required to draw people away from planes. People will have to be able to find an available night train every evening when leaving for Madrid or Milan, for example. One should be leaving every day in both directions. It’s an ambitious aim, but one that’s really at the heart of our project. We want to create a European railway network that criss-crosses the continent, linking up all major metropolises, so that there’s always an alternative to flying.”
- Midnight Trains has secured rolling stock and the money necessary to finance them.
- Midnight Trains aims at competing with medium-haul flights.
- Midnight Trains aims at travellers wanting a comfortable experience, rather than adventure-seekers. In other words: passengers with a bigger budget, without being as expensive as ‘cruises on rails’ such the Belmond luxury trains.
- Midnight Trains wants to offer an easy booking process.
- Midnight Trains wants to start in December 2024, but is aware this could be too soon.
It looks like Adrien Aumont and his team know the how difficult the task is. Midnight Trains’ approach is different to European Sleeper’s and that’s a good thing.
Let’s wait and see.
More on night trains and transcontinental train travel
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