Why is it so hard to get new trains?

Lead time from manufacturers is now more than three to four years. New operators who are launching are also a real thorn in the side for historic railway companies. Explanations.

Big or small, the leaders of European railway companies, and especially French companies, are tearing their hair out. While demand for trains has never been stronger, with operators like SNCF breaking attendance records, getting your hands on new trainsets now requires an increasingly long time, from more than 36 months and up to 48 months.

Examples are numerous: on the SNCF, the new TGV M, the industrial flagship and armed arm of the public company Victory with 20% more capacity, will arrive in mid-2025 at best when it was expected in late 2024. .

For oxygen trainsets produced by the Spanish CAF for intercity lines to Limoges and Clermont-Ferrand, the 2026 objective risks not being met.

Train, how to start a railway company in France?  - On the way to tomorrow - 01/28
Train, how to start a railway company in France? – On the way to tomorrow – 01/28

Same thing for new entrants. The French company Le Train, which initially depended on the second-hand market (virtually non-existent), must turn to new products for its high-speed trains. The company placed an order with Spanish Telgo last year but it may not launch before 2025-2026, i.e. 3 to 4 years after the initially planned date.

Cascading Responsibilities

Same thing again for night trains. Many new players want to enter this niche but promising market. The problem is, finding a new sleeper or bed car in Europe today is almost impossible.

The factors explaining this obstacle are numerous, global and at the same time specific. A manager of a major railway manufacturer explains to us: “The sector is under stress, mainly in terms of the supply chain, not in terms of its production capacity”.

Clearly, manufacturers like Alstom, CAF, Talgo, Hitachi, etc. depend on the delivery of parts by their subcontractors, but the latter find it difficult to get certain raw materials and steel-based components, especially from Russia and Ukraine. Enough to create a domino effect with their customers.

“Everything is taking longer to arrive, the whole chain is falling behind schedule, confirms rail expert and blogger Frederik Decemter. We must also add the impact of the pandemic”.

But for François Guinard, expert consultant at the Roland Berger firm, subcontractors aren’t the only ones responsible.

“Most manufacturers are now committed to focusing on industrial in a broader sense after devoting a lot of energy to commercialization and integration following the consolidation movement,” he explains, specifically referring to the painful takeover of Canadian Bombardier. Alstom.

In 2015, operators ordered to reduce their fleet

We must also consider the rigors of this industry. Thus, at Alstom, French production sites are saturated while those in Germany are underutilized. The problem, “transferring production from a site with overcapacity to a site with underemployment is very complicated,” explains François Guinard.

And we must also add the lack of interoperability between networks in Europe or a certain lack of human resources in both gray and white collar workers. As a result, operators who order high-speed trains today may not get them until 2027 or 2028.

Finally, we must not forget context. A few years ago (in 2015, it’s not that long ago), the train was far from full and SNCF (like other companies) then had to depreciate its assets, therefore reducing the volume of its fleet. (Especially by writing TGVs) instead of ordering. She is paying the price today.

The SNCF TGV fleet currently has 363 trains compared to 418 in 2018 (even though the number of seats has increased by around 10% over the same period, thanks in particular to double-level trains). And going back a few more years, 482 TGV trains were in service in 2012, according to Trans-Mission firm.

According to the firm, between 2012 and 2023, 14% of seats will disappear, with 22% fewer trains, compensating even with double-decker trains.

On the night train side, the problem is slightly different. Many new players like Midnight Train are eager to buy sleeper cars and start their services.

Enough to disrupt an economic model that is already intrinsically fragile. “For new operators, it’s really complicated because it’s not easy to find second-hand rolling stock in Europe and so that means entry fees are very high.” Rail transport expert, Gilles Densart explains.

In fact, almost no European businessman has the means to do this anymore. Manufacturers have easily adapted to the demand of recent years, when night trains were clearly buried.

“The industry has focused almost exclusively on self-propelled trainsets,” explains Frédéric Decemter, meaning trainsets where the locomotive is part of the train at the front and back, like the latest generations of TGV or TER.

Night Trains: Very low volume for interest producers

“The ‘car’ market has been neglected because it is used less and less and there is less demand by operators. Only German Siemens has retained this business” thanks to an order for Nightjets from Austrian operator ÖBB, he continues. “In Austria, the night train is cultural,” underlines the expert.

However, given the perceived popularity of night trains, shouldn’t manufacturers adapt to take advantage of this windfall? “This is a niche market for Alstom and others,” emphasizes Frederik Decemter.

Furthermore, to our knowledge, Alstom has no intention of returning there. Night trains represent orders for small series, volumes that are not large enough. In addition, players who are starting out do not always provide financial guarantees for potential orders. The railway industry is not known for making risky bets…

“It is very complicated to introduce the night train in chains that are busy making other types of equipment (TGV, regional trains, etc.). In addition, this is a small series with a specific function in terms of customization. The customer or the company needs a real incentive. The state, especially the volume Orders with a guarantee in sight”, confirms François Guinard.

There are no orders for new sleeper cars by the state

“So it will be very complicated to get new products in the coming years. Maybe we should act at the European level or look for specialized manufacturers. But we have to invest a lot and put cooperation models,” – he continues.

The motivation of the state is in fact a lever. In France, for example, it is the state that finances and takes charge of the deficit of night trains that are part of the region’s balance trains.

The former transport minister, Clement Beaune, promised that by resuming night trains, the state would place orders for new cars. Unfortunately, as per our information, no order has been placed till date. A replacement for a Corel car from the 1980s (which has been slightly refreshed) so not for tomorrow, nor for tomorrow.

Solution: Extending the life of trains?
Faced with a shortage of new trainsets at a time when demand is growing, SNCF has launched an unprecedented program to extend the life of “old” TGVs by 2 to 10 years by 2025-2026. This is the botox project.

This concerns 104 TGV trains that should disappear within 10 years. This is an important precedent for SNCF in the field of maintenance where everything is highly standardized and calibrated, especially the lifespan of the trains which is set at 40 years.

SNCF thus speaks of “unplanned obsolescence”. In total, two million hours of work will be required at the Technicentre to carry out this programme. The program will start in 2026 and end in 2033.

Oliver Chicheportiche Journalist BFM Business

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