I no longer prefer flying

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.

6 Responses to “I no longer prefer flying”

  1. I just can agree, even going from here to London was far better and even faster than doing it via plane. 4 hrs from city center to city center. Only the long queue at the ticket machines for the tube took ages then 😉

  2. shmook Says:

    I share your enthusiasm for the german railway system, but you should mention that buying a ticket on board the train is significantly more expensive. Further, if you travel on the days around the weekend or during the rush hour, I highly recommend to get a reservation, unless you plan to spend large parts of your voyage on the floor…

  3. JohnMc Says:

    I concur that flying anymore is a total diaster. Fact it can be down right painful in a sense.

    As to trains. Well as much as I have fond memories of traveling by train in the late 50’s its just not practical in this country. Its a matter of scale. Germany is about the size of Texas. France the size of Alaska. Using our current rail infrastructure to get from NYC to LA is a minimum 3 day affair one way.

    That’s not to say rail could not be practical as a regional not national carrier. Rail for Bos-Wash-NYC is competitive. Service in OKC-Dal-Hou, LA-SAC-SF, JAX-ORL-TPA could be competitive as well. Any leg would be under 4 hours. But their problem is at least one of the legs in each corridor needs to be at an airport hub, not the city center.

  4. Steve Holden Says:

    Yes, even in the USA where public transport infrastructure is sadly under-invested and distances are often huge it’s much more pleasant to take the train from DC’s Union Station to Penn Station in New York.

    Given the uncertainties of the airport security lines it’s actually quicker door-to-door as well, and no more expensive. Not only that but it’s a much more reliable service, particularly when I’m returning on Friday evening after a week’s teaching.

    So goodbye, La Guardia!

  5. I wish we had the German trains here in the UK 😦 Train travel here is notoriously expensive. If I want to go from Bristol to London (a mere 120 miles / 200 km) to arrive before 11am on a weekday will cost £137 (€170)!!

    A great website for international rail travel is http://www.seat61.com, lots of info on routes there to different places.


  6. Justin Ryan Says:

    A major issue in the USA for longer distances is reliability – it’s very easy for a <32 hour trip from Central Texas to Northern California to turn into a week on buses. It would be helpful to us if there were regional systems we could interconnect instead of using Amtrak all around. CA wants to connect the train-rich SF Bay to LA, which would be a big step for providing interconnect points with the West Coast. People have pretty good experience short-range with Amtrak traveling between SF Bay and places like Sacramento, probably even further up toward the Canadian border.

    If it’s a challenge to interconnect all the systems in EU due to standardization, at least people in all of those locales are sold on rail and public transit. Our nationwide rail system is seen as a rough alternative to flying, yes, an alternative to driving, no. Often taking a train is more expensive, as well.


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