It had to happen eventually I suppose. As a freelance travel writer of some vintage I’m surprised it took me so long to do my first international day trip. So there I found myself at Heathrow Airport at an ungodly hour of 5am with a coachload of ridiculously chirpy journalists and travel trade pros heading off on the first flight to Berlin to see some Canadian luxury trains being made.
It gets more bizarre still. Train and tram manufacturers Stadler is a Swiss company established in 1941 with its HQ in Bussnang, but one with its tendrills all over the map, with operations as far and wide as Utah, Belarus, Australia and Algeria.
Germany is a key location for railway manufacture of course, and we were there to visit two Berlin factories where they make the magic happen for Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer. Stadler won the contract in 2016, after the previous incumbent went bankrupt, and it was clear that this job was and is a very big deal for them. After all this is the single biggest investment the RM have made in its fleet since it started operations in 1990.
The team’s great pride was evident. Stadler’s lead Engineer Prahb honed his cops working on Indian trains and in Derby. The Mountaineer’s Scott glowed with evident enthusiasm whenever he talked about his job, regaling us with tales of how, these highly prized engineering skills being so specialist, several staff actually came out of retirement to work on the project and how one chap, whose job it was to watch the trains from the signal box, after awaking from a coma apparently uttered his first words – ‘How are the trains doing?’
Any photography on site was strictly verboten, we were asked to don little green safety jerkins and they were keen to impress upon us the stinting levels of care taken with the project. Stringent interoperabiltiy standards mean that Stadler have to work very closely with regulators from multiple authorities and countries, including Amtrak (the trains use their lines to shuttle between Seattle and Vancouver) and Canada’s national operator Via Rail, which again shares some of the same tracks.
I have had the very good fortune to have travelled with the RM twice, on both its Journey to the Clouds route from Vancouver to Jasper and on the First Passage to the West route, between Banff and Vancouver. Both journeys (there are four routes in total and various itineraries with cruise add-ons, popular with honeymooners) were spectacular from start to finish. The views are sublime of course, closely matched by the food, the service and the interpretation of the Rockies’ history, but the carriages’ design, with its handsome two-tone livery of gold and royal blue, and plush interiors are perhaps another important part of the recipe which may get overlooked by some.
The Mountaineer offers 3 levels of service, all of them luxury standard. Passengers travelling in its top echelon, called Gold Leaf, get to occupy a double-decker carriage with the lower floor devoted to Pullman-style dining and the upper for admiring the scenery through its curved glass-covered Dome Viewliner Cars in deluxe seating. Trust me, it is a very far cry indeed from a Southern Rail commuter train!
The first factory, in Pankow in the north east suburbs of Berlin seemed to be their flagship facility. Here we saw a variety of gleaming, spanking new chassis of various trams, light rail and intercity cars from various countries hoisted on massive platforms while their innards were being installed and the trains fine tuned and tested. Interestingly Stadler only work on the cars here, the bogeys and trucks are all made elsewhere.
The second factory, Reinickendorf, is dedicated to the manufacture of the 10 new Rocky Mountaineer GoldLeaf cars which will go into service from next year.
The first thing that struck me was just how vast, clean, quiet and orderly these sites were. They felt more like aircraft hangers than factories. For obvious health and safety reasons all heavy production was halted for the duration of our visit, so we did not get to see any sparks fly or hear any axles grind dramatically. Instead it seemed like a remarkably serene space. There were a handful of engineers busying themselves with wiring and bits of carpentry and neat little racks of nuts and bolts.
The factory was divided into three main zones each catering for a different phase of production. The first was where the heavy manufacturing happens on hefty steel benches that resemble fallen girders. All welding is done by hand here with the trains’ underframes employing a lightweight structure weighing 25 tonnes with curved edges for maximum efficiency and ergonomics. These underframes are made to the same specifications as a freight car using steel components.
Each car takes around 8 weeks of production, with two teams of staff working in shifts around the clock. On the right hand side of the factory the cars are fitted out and tested, while they’re given their handsome paint job in a separate shed.
Stadler follow a rigorous specification of course making these cars to order and on the surface little has changed with these new cars. Most of the enhancements have been made behind the scenes, improving important things the average traveller no doubt takes for granted.
Things like ventilation, energy efficiency and improved facilities for the kitchens which mean the miraculous chefs can do things like cook steaks in their tiny spaces. They’ve also cleverly tweaked the tinted glass on the dome cars to respond to different gradients of light at different times of year and – this being a Canadian service – weather. (The service runs from April – October.)
One of the biggest challenges is actually delivering the final cars. The location of the Reinickendorf factory was chosen carefully for this reason, so that the cars could be shipped on flatbed trucks which would fit under bridges on the route and then go by river, make their way to the port on the Baltic Sea before being shipped across the Atlantic.
Although I didn’t get to go on the Mountaineer for a third time or kick the tyres, I got a good sense of the work that goes into building this premium service – and as I left I was given perhaps the perfect souvenir, this faithful reproduction model train, complete with working interior lighting.
Cute eh? It takes pride of place in our living room, sitting atop of the model ship which my partner’s great grandfather made back in the days when Scotland had a thriving shipbuilding industry, which seems rather fitting.