September 30, 2008
August 11, 2008
Whenever I take a plane for a short distance, I feel like I’m trading in comfort for speed: You have to get to the airport, be there at least an hour before your flight, go through security, etc. only to sit in a an uncomfortably small seat (I’m 1.93m / 6’4″) for an hour or two. And for about half that time you can’t even listen to music on your iPod because your either taking off or landing. Not to mention using a computer which I often can’t anyways due to the lack of space.
So why not trade in speed for comfort for a change? I mean, how much time will you actually have won when you’re going through the hassles of air travel? Surely it isn’t very relaxing so I always find myself having to make up for the travels with relaxation time at some point. And who says ground transport has to be slow? When I was in the US last month, I drove from Virginia to central Pennsylvania instead of taking the plane. It took me a mere 4.5 hours to drive. A pleasant drive, I might add. I imagine I could also have taken the bus if I didn’t want to drive myself or wanted to save carbon-dioxides.
In Europe, we typically take trains. I’m trying not to sound too patriotic, but in my opinion the German high-speed train ICE delivers the best package: You don’t have to get a reservation, in fact you can just step into the train without a ticket and pay on-board, but you can also buy a ticket online or at a vending machine, if you wanted. You also don’t have to “check in” or have your luggage X-rayed like with air travel or the AVE trains in Spain. In fact ICEs go to the same stations as regional or medium-range trains do. These stations are typically in the city center (unlike many TGV stations which are outside the cities, much like, uh, airports). While that may slow down the ICE when going from city to city, it’s much more convenient for passengers. Last but not least, many people find the ICE more comfortable than the TGV (although the TGV seems to have the better underlying technology and has therefore broken numerous speed records).
The best thing, however, is that thanks to high-speed trains, the railway has become a serious alternative to flying. Certainly within the country, but slowly they’re also tackling cross-border traffic. That isn’t easy because for decades, each European country was proud to have its own voltage and alternation frequency, not to mention a proprietary signaling system. But the latest generation TGV and ICE have been certified for the various systems in western Europe. You can now take the ICE from where I live, Dresden, all the way to Paris (a whopping 1000 km) in just under 9 hours and you only have to change trains once, in Frankfurt. A bit less spectactular and even half an hour quicker is Cologne to Vienna (900 km). And in just 8 hours you can get from Amsterdam to Munich. Sure, flying would probably add up to about half the time if you count the time spent going from city center to city center (assuming there’s a direct flight), but then I’m much more comfortable in the train. I have tables, 230 V power outlets, GPRS or 3G internet connectivity, in some trains they even have Wifi now. I could have a bite or drink in the on-board bistro. Or I can just sit back and relax.
Unfortuantely there still are numerous challenges in international rail traffic. Neither southern Europe (with the exception of Spain) nor eastern Europe has a high-speed train system. It’ll be a while until you can take a train from Munich to Rome in under a day (the Alps also have something to do with it ). But so far, the TGV, Thalys, EuroStar and ICE have brought Paris, London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Vienna and Berlin much closer to each other. I can’t wait until Madrid, Rome, Prague, Warsaw and many other cities join the club.