Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

My Photo
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Why Can't We Have A Passenger Rail System Like Europe's?

Every time I go to Europe, as I did with my family in late November, I am reminded anew how reliable, comfortable, and frequent the rail systems are there. Notice that I didn't say cheap, because rail fares are expensive in Europe. Be that as it may, their passenger rail services are a marvel.

Even as a student way back in 1973 when I first went all round the Continent by trains it was fast, convenient, and an absolute pleasure. My initial encounter with European railroads began upon landing in Brussels. I was amazed that the airport (in 1973) had frequent and direct rail connections to the two big Brussels rail stations.

Once at Brussels Gare Centrale I spent 30 minutes learning to comprehend their posted schedule boards, and I've been tooling around by train in Europe with ease ever since. With no foreknowledge, I was able to quickly devise schedules to get from Brussels to Lucerne to Milano to Firenze (Florence)--and I was jet-lagged doing it. Over the next few weeks I figured out the train systems of Italy, France, Switzerland, Spain, and Germany just as quickly.

Thirty-four years later the rail systems in Europe have improved dramatically. TGVs speed across France with the frequency of Manhattan subways. The EuroStar is a far more civilized and comfortable way to get between London and Paris than battling the demons at Heathrow and CDG airports.

Happily, our recent week traveling by DB (Deutsche Bahn) around Germany confirms that the German rail network is as modern and reliable as any in Europe. And a tremendous bargain, too, if you buy one of the family railpass options, as we did, through RailEurope.

Arriving at Frankfurt Airport we completed the formalities of entering the EU and were following the signs to the airport train station less than 15 minutes after stepping onto the jetway. Or I should say, train stations, since there are two at the Frankfurt Airport, one in the basement for local services in the greater metro area, and a separate one at ground level for ICE trains (Inter-City Expresses).

ICE trains in Germany look a lot like French TGVs: bullet-shaped and integrated standard trainsets, with identical driver compartments at each end. Often two trainsets are coupled together and move as one train. Each trainset has two first class cars; the remainder of the train is configured as second class. Both classes are very comfortable. There is a light meal and bar car mid-train which is always open.

At 300 KPH (about 185 MPH), ICEs are not as fast as TGVs. However, they are every bit as comfortable and reliable, and the schedule frequency is astonishing. Hourly ICE service between major German cities is the norm, such as between München (Munich) and Nürnberg.

We hopped on and off ICEs all over Germany between Köln (Cologne) and Salzburg in Austria, and all were dead on time save one, and it was ten minutes late arriving but made up the delay before reaching our destination. The convenience and reliability of the schedules became ingrained pretty quickly, and we came to depend on the rail system again, as we used to when we lived there. This led us to muse again on how much we would miss the dependable German rail service once we were back home.

By standardizing on trainsets and schedules, DB has created an interchangeable and reliable equipment fleet, much the same way that Southwest Airlines has done in the USA with its single aircraft type (737s). That's where the similarity ends. Whereas Southwest provides a single cattle class, DB's ICE trains, and its similar ECs (Euro-City international trains), offer two very comfortable classes of service.

First class seating aboard ICEs is configured 1-2, with a variety of seating arrangements. For instance, there are three private compartments in the second first class car of each standard ICE trainset; other seats are arranged in rows, with the center rows facing each other over a table with folding wings for working.

Wireless Internet and mobile phone services are standard aboard ICE trains. We saw lots of business men and women chatting on their phones and working on their laptops.

European train schedules are as easy to read and understand in 2007 as they were when I first encountered them in 1973. Very little has changed, and that's good, because the system was and is simple and near-perfect.

Stations have two types of train information boards: electronic ones with info on all upcoming trains in the next few hours, and large format printed "arrivals" and "departures" schedules for all trains which are posted prominently in many conveniently located places inside stations. Schedules also tell which track each train will be arriving on; station track assignments are standard for the duration of the train schedule period.

Each track platform posts graphic maps of the cars of each train arriving on that track throughout the day. The individual train maps show where the first and second class cars will be on each train (because trainsets are also standard from day to day), and also the trackside location of each car when the train stops (track locations are usually marked A, B, C, etc. overhead).

For instance, we had seat reservations on several trains, and we were able to see exactly where, say, "Car 32" would be stopping (e.g., track location D). Then we would go to location D and stand there until the train arrived. Our car would always stop exactly where the map had indicated.

Speaking of seat reservations, we bought ours in advance for the trains we knew we'd be riding. This was to be certain that we had four first class seats together for our family of four rather than take pot luck upon boarding. Except in busy travel periods, almost every train has 40-60% unreserved seats available, and they are open to who gets them first.

In 1973 DB used little chits of paper to mark reserved seats, but these days it's all computerized. Above or beside each seat is a small LCD screen showing whether the seat is reserved and between what two cities. You are free to take one of the reserved seats, but it must be vacated if the person holding the reservation shows up.

Oddly, seats reservations are cheaper if bought in Germany, whereas railpasses purchased stateside provide great savings over in-country rail tariffs. We paid $11 per seat reservation in the United States; the same reservation in Germany costs €3.50 (about $5.25).

Our first class railpasses were $245 apiece for adults and $158 for each child. There are many options; we chose 4 days within a month solely within Germany. Knowing we'd be in Germany for 8 days, and just in Deutschland, this was a fine option for our trip.

We realized what a bargain the railpasses were on the last day when we decided to take the train from Frankfurt to Köln and back via Mainz and Koblenz along the Rhine River to see the castles. We obtained schedules for the trip in both directions from a helpful DB representative at the Frankfurt airport ICE train station, and she printed it out for our reference. On the paper were the first class prices to Köln and back, which is just an hour away by ICE: almost $200 round trip per person! I calculated that we saved about $1,800 in rail fare during our eight days in Germany by buying the railpasses for the four of us.

Our DB railpasses also allowed us to travel to Salzburg in Austria and to Basel in Switzerland, since both cities are on the borders of those countries. Because of this liberal option, we traveled one day to Salzburg from München, a beautiful trip through Alpine territory in under two hours each way.

As I said above, we quickly took for granted the convenience, reliability, and comfort of the inter-city rail services in Germany. By day 7 we were shocked and incensed to see a ten minute delay posted for one of our trains (that train made up its time and arrived on schedule).

Our recent experience incrementally updated our Euro-rail knowledge, but there was nothing dramatically new. European rail networks have worked well for decades. They have been continuously modernized.

Though not cheap, rail services in Europe are better, faster, and more convenient than ever. Trains are a better option than flying in both comfort and reliability for distances up to 300 miles, and maybe a bit more. Trains are more efficient, less polluting, and carry more people than airplanes do, too.

It's too bad that we don't have the political will to build similar rail network solutions here in America. Population densities in many areas east of the Mississippi warrant it.

Where necessary, Europeans have found ways to build entirely new rail lines for their high speed trains to separate them from freight rail traffic and highway grade crossings. We need to do the same.

Recent plans for new high speed inter-city rail corridors have been gaining favor, so perhaps it's finally dawning on us that we need high speed rail options to get us out of the crowded airways and back on the ground. I hope we emulate the better qualities of the European rail systems, and that we do it fast.

It can't happen fast enough for me. On our recent trip, my family thoroughly enjoyed every rail journey in Germany, and we never once missed flying. I dream of having similar frequent, high speed, reliable, and convenient rail travel options in America.


Post a Comment

<< Home