How digital design shaped the hotel on wheels that is redefining luxury train travel in France

Learn how 3D modeling and digitalization helped train builder AFF speed up its processes as it designed Le Grand Tour, a Belle Époque–style hotel train that is destined to shape the future of boutique train travel in France.

Image courtesy of AFF.

A luxury train speeds through the French countryside.

Maxime Thomas

March 27, 2024

min read
  • Le Grand Tour is a new luxury hotel train that will soon begin taking passengers on a six-day, five-night rail tour of France.

  • The project was a growth opportunity for Ateliers de Fabrication Ferroviaire (AFF), a small French company behind the train’s design, featuring high-end services and amenities.

  • AFF draws on digital tools like 3D modeling to increase efficiency and coordinate design processes.

Jules Verne, author of Around the World in Eighty Days, was also a train aficionado, noting that he found as much pleasure in watching a steam engine or a fine locomotive as he did contemplating a painting by Raphael or Correggio. Similar sentiments are prompting a return to what’s sometimes considered an antiquated form of tourism: train travel. Whether it’s a luxury, an overnight, or a more traditional journey, rail travel is once again in vogue. Based in Somain, in northern France, Ateliers de Fabrication Ferroviaire (also known as Arlington Fleet France, AFF) is reimagining the legend of train travel and is using digital tools to create the experience.

A view inside the bedroom of a luxury train car
Luxury, overnight, and more traditional: In France, train travel is back in fashion. Image courtesy of AFF.

For more than two years, AFF’s designers and craftspeople, specializing in the transformation, repair, and maintenance of railway rolling stock, have been creating new passenger carriages. Soon the train will crisscross France on “Le Grand Tour,” a unique six-day, five-night hotel-train trip in the spirit of the Belle Époque era. The train is already causing quite a buzz, even though it has yet to leave the station.

Accelerated development

“This is a completely new project that has taken us to a whole new level,” says Willy Snauwaert, technical director at AFF. “The company has suddenly transformed from a railway carriage maintenance service into a haute couture workshop.”

Prior to this project, the small business employed 15 people and maintained freight wagons and passenger carriages. In the span of six months, AFF has hired 70 new employees from a variety of trades—including engineers, mechanics, plumbers, heating engineers, electricians, joiners, and industrial designers—to keep up with the demands of its client, Puy du Fou, the company behind the luxury train experience.

A train car is welded together in a shop.
AFF has hired 70 additional staff to successfully complete this project. Image courtesy of AFF.

Creating a long-distance luxury train with a high-end services and amenities was an opportunity for AFF’s teams to expand their offerings, especially in the maintenance department. This project helped the company turn its focus to a market of passionate travelers interested in luxurious train travel, offering amenities like a gourmet restaurant on board and a luxury hotel service with a butler assigned to each cabin. Even though the train is not yet on the tracks, reservations are pouring in. Snauwaert says the project could provide a showcase for the company to find similar markets in Europe. “From a technical and a regulatory point of view, this is an extraordinary project,” he says.

A train car is being built in a train yard.
AFF transforms and maintains rail wagons and carriages. Le Grand Tour luxury train, on the right, is a large-scale project. Image courtesy of AFF.

To speed up the development and approval phases, AFF made two important decisions. First, it acquired railway rolling stock from the 1960s to renovate based on an approved model; and second, it completely digitized its processes, which teams had to quickly learn how to apply in order to scale the project. AFF’s digital transformation began in February 2021 and reached cruising speed in September of the following year.

Saving time with digital tools

The company uses Autodesk Inventor for its digital models, which let the team integrate new components into the digital mockup, develop interface components, and translate them into drawings for the production of parts. “We wouldn’t have been able to carry out the project without it,” Snauwaert says.

To make the process run smoothly and to keep multiple designers working on the same document from accidentally overwriting each other’s work, AFF turned to Upchain, an Autodesk cloud-based product data management (PDM) solution. Upchain is integrated into Inventor and manages design data and engineering processes so that the AFF team can concentrate on its work and not waste time searching for data.

“We were experiencing synchronization problems and had several heart-stopping moments after losing data,” Snauwaert says. “We needed a digital vault where we could find each previous version of the parts we produced. This tool allows us to identify bad practices, correct them, and continuously improve our processes.”

A rendering of a train car.
A rendering of the redesigned train car. Image courtesy of AFF.

On an operational level, AFF has seen its efficiency improve thanks to digital tools. Traditionally, data research can account for up to 20% of a designer’s working time, and losing data can eat up an additional 20%. “Although we are a small company, AFF has received excellent support from Autodesk and RMR for using these tools,” Snauwaert says.

Having resolved the issue of archiving, the AFF teams are working to improve validation workflows so that 2D and 3D plans are sent to the right people. “The next step will be to manage the lifecycle of spare parts to ensure the right balance between purchasing and stocking,” Snauwaert says.

In addition to launching the Le Grand Tour carriages, AFF hopes that the Grand Tour project will draw the attention of industry professionals to its skills in integrating new technologies into rolling stock. When it comes to digital transformation, AFF isn’t going to rest on its laurels and miss the next train.

Maxime Thomas

About Maxime Thomas

Maxime Thomas is an editor for the French national and specialized press. He has also worked in radio and covers various aspects of industrial life, including digital transformation and its specific consequences for certain professions.

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