A pool of vehicles could facilitate access for operators of pulled trains

One of the problems facing new entrants is the acquisition of rolling stock. Leasing formulas exist for traction equipment, but less so for pulled equipment. This can be an obstacle, especially for night trains.

We do not liberalize purely for ideological reasons. First of all, it is a question of affirming that the railways are not a closed sector or a military object at the service of the State. It is a transport tool that has great potential but that has to fight every day to demonstrate its relevance. While this is already the case in certain regions and on certain networks in Europe, a majority of the rest still have high untapped market-growth potential in modal share vis-à-vis other transportation modes and offering levels, notes a report by Mc Kinsey.

Entering a new market presents uncertainties and risks, from the choice of operating model to capital-expenditure and regulatory risk. There is no predefined winning strategy for entering a new rail market, especially given the peculiarities of different markets and competitive settings, explains Mc Kinsey.

One of the recipes is to start with an asset-light operating model to reduce financial and operating risks and maintenance costs. This is what the Czech operators Regiojet and Swedish Transdev have done in particular, by acquiring only second-hand rolling stock for mainline trains. The Austrian operator Westbahn, for its part, preferred a formula for leasing new rolling stock from a Swiss firm, which resulted in excessive costs. There are therefore different forms of acquisition of rolling stock and it is imperative to pay close attention to them.

Leasing has been available to the railways for a long time. However, liberalization, which tends to be criticized too often, has given rise to new leasing companies, which also provide employment that did not exist before. These companies enable smaller operators to obtain new rolling stock, usually with a maintenance contract. In some cases, it is even the manufacturer itself that does the maintenance, such as Siemens in Dortmund-Eving or Stadler in the Netherlands.

(photo press Siemens)

Rolling stock leasing has become commonplace for locomotives, Emus and Dmus. Many operators use this formula because this rolling stock is standardised in design. They « simply » add a national on-board safety package corresponding to the country that the rolling stock is to be used. Generally speaking, you will not see any major differences between a Flirt Stadler from Hamburg, Groningen or Tilo in Italy. This standardisation has greatly helped the industry, which can produce cheaper, and smaller operators who can respond to tenders with new equipment.

Leasing companies have followed the railway market: since the 2000s, the incumbents have increasingly abandoned pulled trainsets in favor of self-propelled railcars (Emu and Dmu). High speed only uses block trains and most local traffic is operated by motorized trainsets with three to six cars. Why has this changed compared to the 1970s? It became apparent that for short trains, having a locomotive pulling 4 or 5 cars was a waste of resources, as the locomotive was too large for light traffic. But there are still debates on this subject and the question remains open. The main consequence is that today, there are few manufacturers offering long-distance passenger cars. This poses a problem for the new operators.

To start long-distance trains, there is a choice of conventional pulled trainsets, high-speed trains and, for night trains, sleeper and couchette carriages. But this is precisely the equipment that is not leased. Mainly because there would be no demand, explains the industry. In the case of high speed, the acquisition costs are very high and dissuade many candidates. This is why NTV-Italo has entered directly into a leasing contract with Alstom which includes a maintenance clause. Alstom has built a maintenance workshop in Nola, near Naples. This formula was possible because NTV-Italo was thinking large and was sure of its market. But this system is impossible for smaller markets. With Spanish liberalisation, no leasing company, for example, owns AVE-S102 trains, which would have allowed a competitor to set up quickly.

Instead, only the SNCF has taken around 15 TGV Duplex 800 series trainsets from its own fleet, which will enable it to quickly operate its service in Spain from March 2021, after a few modifications. Trenitalia, which has teamed up with Ilsa, will have to wait until 2022 to use new Frecciarossa trainsets currently under construction, under a framework agreement. These examples show how impossible it is for an average operator to compete in the high-speed market. Which solution?

It would be time to dare! For that, the TGV NG (New Generation), the ERT1000 Zefiro (Frecciarossa), the Talgo Avril and the Siemens ICE should be trains capable of running everywhere, without major restrictions. Great Britain has done so with its Intercity Express Programme (IEP), which is an initiative of the Department for Transport (DfT) in the United Kingdom to procure new trains to replace the InterCity 125 and InterCity 225 fleets. Agility Trains private consortia, which was choose, obtained financial backing from lenders including HSBC, Lloyds TSB, Mizuho and Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi. The fleet requirement for IEP is for 866 vehicles in total. The scope of service required comprises the design, manufacture, financing, servicing and maintenance of the complete package, over the entire life of the fleet. Of course, this British formula associates only one manufacturer, in this case Hitachi Rail, which has built its own factory at Newton Aycliffe, north of Darlington. Could such a formula see the light of day elsewhere? Europe could play a role, but one can immediately imagine the fight it will create, each country defending its « industrial champion ». It would then be necessary to find an Airbus-type formula, which has been talked about for a long time at the railway level, but which for the moment is only present on pretty power-points that are quickly forgotten!

It should be underlined that it was neither politics nor ministers who succeeded in building a form of « Airbus of railway », but private industry on a technically and commercially viable basis, for example through Bombardier’s TRAXX and Siemens’ Vectron locomotives, which can now be found all over Europe from Stockholm to Lisbon .

The most realistic solution at the present time about high speed trains is a partnership between a private player and a « big elephant » who knows the high-speed business. First Group in Great Britain, and Ilsa in Spain, are thus joining forces with Trenitalia to supply and finance high-speed fleets. It is the only state operator to operate such a formula.

But it gets complicated with day and night trains. The rolling stock used in Europe is very often old, with the exception of the Austrian Railjets. These are made up of classic cars supplied by Siemens as part of its Viaggio range. They are comfortable but cost money. 500 kilometres from Vienna, the Romanian firm Astra supplies cheaper cars, entirely valid for the whole of Europe. Regiojet has bought 72 new cars of the Bmpz 20-90 type for 73 million euros, with screen on the back of each seat.

In other cases, there are very well restored railway cars on European tracks. Germany is one of the few countries, along with Sweden, to have railway car rental companies. The companies BTE from Nuremberg, RDC from Hamburg, Euro Express Sonderzug from Münster or the Swiss company Heros, have thus carried out the complete renovation of German cars from the 60s and 70s, including couchettes cars that Deutsche Bahn no longer uses. There is no equivalent in France or Belgium, where car sales dominate. Austria has put up for sale a large part of its Intercity/Eurocity fleet, which now fills the Regiojet fleet.

>>> In depth focus: fleet of Regiojet (in french)

It is interesting to know that the Swiss company Heros rents the famous double-decker sleeping cars that are still in use on Vienna-Zurich and Zurich-Berlin routes, managed by Nightjet.

>>> See technical datasheet

WLABm 61 85 76-90 302-4 CH-CNL at Zürich-Hbf in 2012 (photo NAC via wikipedia)

Recently, following the withdrawal of former operating partner RDC Deutschland, Flixtrain has back on track in August and has acquired its own rolling stock with the backing of leasing company Railpool. The vehicles are being refurbished by Talbot Rail Services at Aachen before entering service. This is an interesting new development, because until now Railpool has specialised in locomotive leasing. The Flixtrain’s cars are second-hand vehicles, but this solution could be applied to both day and night trains. But is there a market for this? The Flixtrain initiative seems to answer that well, and the demand for night trains seems to be high. The railway car could meet a great challenge: the homologation of new cars from Astra, CAF or Siemens would be faster than mainline railcars of the Stadler KISS type, which have motorisation and driving cabs that make testing more cumbersome. With this formula, operators can separate the acquisition of rolling stock from that of traction units. Flixtrain pulls its trains with the help of the SVG and IVG companies, which are licensed and have railway company status. The same applies to Regiojet in Hungary, which has its trains pulled by the staff of the operator Continental Railway Solution.

Leased railway carriages could therefore be a solution facing to the problem of night train rolling stock. But this requires several operators to come forward with firm intentions, to order 200 cars or more from a single manufacturer through a call for tenders. Since the large public service companies do not want them (with the notable exceptions of the ÖBB… and Trenitalia), this solution could then be of interest to a leasing company who would take care of the rental contracts but also take care of the maintenance. We could almost talk about « Railway Car As A service »…

If other mainline train projects are included, such as Flixtrain, a much larger order could be placed to allow different operators to begin operations. In this case, assistance from a consortium of banks, with today zero interest rates, could finance brand new rolling stock. The railway passenger car pool is an idea to be explored to bring more operators, and therefore more passengers on the rails.