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Railroads of Europe

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European Railways

by Cathy Richey

France's Train Grande Vitesse (TGV) can now travel between Stuttgart and Paris in only three hours 40 minutes instead of six hours. The latest generation of Germany's Inter-City Express (ICE) trains has similarly shrunk the journey time between Frankfurt and Paris.

There is no doubt that Germany's state-owned railway is at the forefront of Europe's rail revolution. Hartmut Mehdorn, chief executive of DB, has turned a chronic loss-making railway into a powerful international business. It is already a world-class logistics company, with a global business based on its international rail-freight activity.

The high-speed railways in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland joined with existing international services, such as the cross-channel Eurostar and the Paris-Brussels Thalys, to form Railteam, a new marketing alliance. The aim is to have one website that will allow travelers to view timetables and prices and, with one or two clicks, book tickets from one end of Europe to another. At the European Commission's insistence, Railteam members will compete on prices. But there could be some tricky moments as some of them team up to take on airlines.

Railroads can be a potent competitor to airlines. A saying among frequent patrons of Amtrak in the USA is, "Go by air, if you have time to spare." With the delays, cancellations, cost, discomfort and sheer hassle of travel by air, rail is often much better. Rail offers a quick, reliable, affordable, comfortable mode of transport. The clientele on trains generally differ from those on planes, also. They dress better and are better mannered. This may change in time, but for now it's a distinct advantage of traveling by rail.

In Europe, rail has another big advantage--one not enjoyed in the USA except in a few large metro areas. Europe was never built with the government subsidized auto industry in mind, the main subsidy being the system of suburbs and highways. The cost of this system is not borne by automobile manufacturers or by Big Oil, but by taxpayers and by the environment. Europe doesn't have this cost to nearly the extent the USA does, and linking places by rail is more practical and more necessary.

Consequently, Europe is in the grip of a high-speed rail revolution. Four new lines are opening with trains running up to 320kph. The eastern France TGV line is the first, with a new link from the Channel Tunnel to a new rail hub at London St Pancras, connecting Britain's first really fast line to the rest of the network. Brussels has new high-speed links to Amsterdam and Cologne.

The opening of the TGV-Est marked a huge change of heart for France. Its high-speed rail network has been spinning a web from Paris to the corners of the French hexagon since the mid-1970s. But now the TGV-Est wires France into the heart of its biggest neighbor, Germany, and gives birth to a joint venture between the French and German state-owned railways, SNCF and Deutsche Bahn (DB

Although joint ventures between state-owned rail champions and a grand Railteam marketing alliance might not seem an ideal way of introducing a new level of competition into an industry long regarded as rusty, it is an important start. International passenger-rail services in Europe are open to competition.

Europe's open skies led to more privatization of state airlines and the emergence of new, low-cost carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair. If Europe's railway revolution stays on track, an easyTrain or Ryanrail will emerge.

The prospects for Europe's trains have hardly been better since the great age of steam. For decades planes, cars and lorries have been quicker, more convenient and usually more reliable ways to transport people and goods throughout much of Europe. But concern over climate change, hassles at overcrowded airports, delayed flights and congested roads have conspired with better high-speed rail technology to make the train an increasingly attractive alternative.

And it's an especially green one: a full high-speed electric train emits between a tenth and a quarter of the carbon dioxide of a plane, according to the bosses of Eurostar. 


About the author: Cathy and her Doberman Trooper conduct research into all kinds of topics and produce articles like the one you see here. To contact Cathy, write to Get the facts from Cathy, and let the Cathy Factor give you an edge.


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