Friday, February 27, 2015

Europe’s high speed trains: Romancing the rails

A Cisalpino tilting train races through the European countryside  (wikipedia)
 EUROPE Europe’s modern high speed rail networks have forever changed the way travelers visit the continent.

Thanks to modern rail technology, traveling by train through Europe has recaptured the romance of travel that existed in a bygone era. Once again the simple act of coming from and going to is a pleasure to be enjoyed with contemporary comfort and efficiency.

Japanese Shinkansen, commonly called "The Bullet Train"  (wikipedia)
In 1964, when the hoopla of the Tokyo Olympic Games was over and the world departed, the crowded island nation waved good-bye and went back to work.  But something remained. Something had changed the world of transportation and travel, forever. 

In Japan they are called Shinkansen, but to the world they commonly became known as “bullet trains.”

With concerns about population density combined with rising costs of gasoline, countries like France and Germany quickly began developing high speed rail services of their own. 

Today, France takes national pride as a leader in conventional rail technology, establishing a world record speed of 357.2 miles per hour in April of 2007.

Double decked TGV speeds through the coast of France  (wikipedia)
Commercial high speed trains in many European countries currently reach scheduled speeds of 186-mph while some of France’s TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse) travel at 200-mph.  In larger European countries, such as France and Germany, it was feasible to design dedicated tracks which allow higher rates of speed.

Countries with less revenue for rail infrastructure or which are not large enough to support the extensive
Tilting trains make high speed possible  (wikipedia)
lengths of dedicated track necessary for high speed rail, ingeniously developed the concept of tilting trains.  While tilt trains do not travel at the super speeds of their faster cousins, they have the advantage of being able to operate on existing rail lines.

Another innovation, which has also been incorporated into modern French TGVs and German ICEs (Inter City Express), is double deck trains which offer added passenger capacity and high speeds as well.

Technological advances in conventional high speed rail travel made the long awaited dream of connecting the United Kingdom with continental Europe through a tunnel beneath the English Channel a reality.
Eurostar train exits the Channel Tunnel at 186-miles per hour  (wikipedia)
The project officially opened in May, 1994 with the 31.4 mile underwater rail tunnel linking Folkstone, Kent in England with Coquelles Pas-de-Calais in northern France.  Today, Eurostar trains make day trips between England and France or Belgium a convenient proposition for holiday travelers or businessmen.  Trains travel between London and Paris in 2 hours 15 minutes, while trips  to/from London and Brussels can be done in just under 2 hours. 

Interior of Thalys, known as "Big Red"  (wikipedia)
Private companies have also gotten into the high speed rail marketplace.  Known as “the Big Red Train,” Thalys unites Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) with Paris.  Popular stops en route include Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne.

Even a small country like Switzerland, which has no need for a high speed network of its own, has cleverly negotiated alliances with France, Germany and Italy to utilize their rapid train services between the bordering countries.  The result has been a tourism boom for all four destinations by providing easy access for visitors.

Inside the bustling railway terminal in Stockholm, Sweden  (wikipedia)
Several other countries in Europe also have extensive, growing, high speed rail services, particularly Sweden and Spain.  Competition among the countries is keen, and services vary widely depending upon the length of the journey.  Short hauls feature food carts with snack and drink services or bistro cars, while longer trips provide full-service dining cars.  Depending upon the time of day, some trains offer meal services at your seat.
A German InterCity Express (ICE) pulls into Leipzig  (wikipedia)
Ground transportation is frequently the last thing travelers consider when planning a trip.  For Americans, renting a car is often the first consideration and, indeed, at first glance a rail pass may seem expensive by comparison.  But when you calculate the high cost of gasoline in Europe, the convenience of going city-center to city-center by rail, the hassles of reading road signs and finding parking, the accessibility of food and restroom services and the opportunity to relax, read a book or paper, work at the computer, enjoy a nap or simply gaze out the window at the passing panoramas, a European rail pass is a bargain. In addition, rail passes offer many money-saving bonuses for a variety of other travel related services.

Panoramic trains glides through Switzerland  (wikipedia)
Even with supplements for some high speed rail services, the convenience of traveling between many European destinations of relatively short distances, or the ability to do day trips that were once regarded as impractical, has changed the face of travel forever. 

It is now practical, in many cases, to base yourself in a city without changing hotels every day.  Not only does it save time from packing and unpacking, it allows more opportunities for sightseeing or shopping and fewer hassles of constantly being on the move.

High speed trains combine with majestic European scenery for the best of two worlds  (wikipedia)
High speed trains reinvented travel in Europe. Using their fabulous modern “bullet trains” is a traveler’s delight.