How digital shaped the ‘hotel on wheels’ redefining luxury train travel in France


When train builder AFF wanted to speed up its processes, it turned to 3D modelling and digitalisation to shape a hotel train that is changing the future of boutique train travel in France. Maxime Thomas reports.

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 using digital tools to create the experience.

For more than two years, AFF’s designers and craftspeople, specialising 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.

Extraordinary project transforming the business

“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 an 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.

AFF has hired 70 additional staff to successfully complete Le Grand Tour 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 travellers 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.

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 digitised 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.

Improving efficiency thanks to 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 synchronisation 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 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 is an editor for the French national and specialised press.

Click here to read more about Le Grand Tour and other innovative projects on the Autodesk website.