Former SBB and NS fleet managers create a ‘Boeing 737 on rails’ with leasing startup
Leasing a passenger train that can be used in almost all of Europe, in a flexible way. Currently impossible, but Axel Kiese and Albert Koch, formerly fleet managers at SBB and NS, want to change that with the startup ace4rail.
RailTech spoke to Albert Koch, who quit his job at Dutch Railways (NS) at the end of last year, and has been part of an ambitious startup since last spring. The idea of leasing train equipment for passengers was already playing in his head, and when Swiss Axel Kiese founded the startup ace4rail – headquartered in Basel – a year ago, they got in touch. “The rail market has potential to grow, but for that you need more assets, more equipment,” says Koch. “Reusing equipment that other railway operators put aside is one of those possibilities, but ultimately it’s also good if companies can use really modern stuff, and have access to it in a flexible way.”
Due to its innovative nature and potential to accelerate the admission of new equipment on the European rail network, ace4rail received a ‘Wildcard’ from the Dutch rail sector knowledge network Railforum, with a year’s free membership to promote knowledge exchange. Previously, the wildcard went to startup European Sleeper, for example.
To make the train usable for as many countries and operators as possible, flexibility and a good basis, combined with interoperability is key. The “ace” in ace4rail therefore stands for “anytime coaches Europe”. Anywhere in Europe where track is in standard gauge, the coaches can be used, with the exception of the UK, where trains have to be narrower. With a speed of up to 200 to 230 kilometres per hour and a possible train length of 75 to 400 metres, the train can be used in many different forms of services.
The design of the train is also flexible. “We want to design the carriages so that you can play a lot with the interior layout”, says Koch. “So if an operator says: I want a budget composition with lots of seats and little space, that’s possible. But also a luxury train or a combination becomes possible. We want to be of service to everyone.”
The exterior of the train will be the same, which has advantages for the production of the coaches. “The idea for the future is also absolutely that we will keep building the same coaches. We call it the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320 on rails, in aviation these are used everywhere.” The advantage of leasing, which is already widely done with locomotives and freight wagons, is that it is a smaller commitment and risk for operators compared to buying new equipment themselves, which has a lifespan of about 40 years, and is a huge investment.
Initial leases will be medium-term, but it will also become possible to enter into shorter-term contracts later on. “As the fleet grows, much more will become possible,” says Koch.
“Huge potential” for international trains
With the right locomotive in front of the train, the carriages can take to the tracks in most European countries. It is of interest for national rail operators and train services as well as international trains, says Koch. “Having been involved a lot with international trains, I do feel that there is a lot of potential there.”
Ace4rail focuses on offering day trains, and not night trains. Koch recognises that it is also difficult for night train operators to find equipment, but the potential for day trains is simply bigger, and therefore the startup’s initial focus. “Technically, there is also a lot of difference between the two types, and we can only spend our energy once at this stage.” On the other hand, he certainly does not rule out the possibility that if the company is up and running smoothly, night trains could be added to the portfolio in the future.
For now, the need is greater for day trains, Koch says, but how big is that need? “Our rough estimate is that there could be a need for a few thousand carriages over the next 20 years. We really see a market potential for modern, flexible carriages, which can be used by all kinds of operators.”
Kiese and Koch have already had many talks with rail operators, investors and train manufacturers. Without being able to name them, Koch does indicate that he is getting a lot of positive reactions. “Both from existing operators, and from parties that do not yet run trains but want to do so. The interest is also very geographically dispersed, all over Europe.”
A large investment is needed to get the new company up and running, but given that leasing companies for locomotives have become successful and attracted investors, Koch sees this will succeed with passenger vehicles as well.
The ambition is to have the first train in commercial service by 2028. The biggest challenge for this is time, says Koch. “In particular, the approval of carriages is a lengthy process, especially since we have several countries in the picture. I know from experience that this can often take a long time.” But once the approval is in the pocket, things can go much faster, as the basic coaches remain the same. “If a new customer then says: I want 40 carriages in two years’ time, we can say: that’s possible.”