Railroads of Europe
by Cathy Richey
France's Train à 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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