Why use trains? In the last post I emphasized how the USA developed through train technology. Obviously, the advance of automotive transport and oil use over the past century spurred the car and truck culture, and now the airline industry, we now take for granted. It’s hard for most Americans to visualize a different way of moving around the country. If you travel outside North America you get a different perspective of travel.
The drive plus ferry from London to Paris used to take 7 hours or more depending on road and weather conditions, especially across the English Channel. The intercity rail from London’s Paddington rail Station to Paris’s Gare Du Nord rail station (city center to city center) for as little as $40 takes just 2 hours and 15 minutes. From there you have access to all the major cities in Europe without the hassle of traffic congestion and holdups that are as prevalent in Europe as they are in America. On a trip back from Paris to London on the ‘Chunnel’ train I was able to walk up and down the train and visit the refreshments car at ease. I talked with a French woman going from Toulouse to London on Business and why she was taking the train and not flying from Toulouse to London. The story was much like I mentioned in the last post about flying to Chicago. When all the wait times and airport to city connections were factored in, the journey for this woman was not only about the same amount of time but the cost using the trains was about the same. The woman said the trains were also more convenient and comfortable.
On a recent trip I flew to Munich and rented a car to travel around Bavaria and northern Austria. I must say that legally doing over a 100 mph on the Autobahn back to Munich was exhilarating but strange as I had to keep moving over to the slow lane to allow the really fast cars to pass me. Germany is renowned for it speeds on the autobahns. I made it from the Austrian border to the outskirts of Munich in less than 2 hours. The 16 Km (10 miles) journey at 4pm from the outskirts to city center where the hotel was located, however, took another 2 hours, and then I had the nightmare of negotiating traffic in a city I did not know all the while avoiding road construction and then trying to find parking for the car while I checked into the hotel (most European city center hotels do not have parking). The next day I travelled the high-speed electric Intercity Express rail from Munich to Amsterdam. It took about 8 hours and cost about $80 in a first class car (I splurged). Flying would have been a little quicker but I would have missed all the great scenery along the way, which was wonderful, even at 300 Kph (186 Mph) top speed – all information was listed and updated continually on the ‘smart’ information board in each car. It was also most comfortable and quiet and typical of German efficiency, on time at all the station stops (usually 3-4 minutes only per stop for nine stops) along the way. From the main station I was able to take a local train to within a mile of my friends who lived about 20 miles from Amsterdam without hassle at Rush hour. Light rail will be covered in another post to come soon.
There has been much discussion over the past decade about the viability of an intercity high-speed rail system in the USA similar to Europe or eastern Asia. I’ll leave the financial realities of building this rail system and the expansion and maintenance of existing U.S. roadways for the next post. For now, let’s focus on whether a rail system would be a viable option for the U.S. One of the most polluting forms of travel in the world is jet travel. Jet fuel with its emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), water vapor, particulates, contrails and cirrus cloud formation accounts for as much as 5 percent of fossil fuel pollution. Trains are electric, but of course, the source of the electricity is crucial. Using a fossil fuel power plant is only slightly better than using aviation fuel. However, using renewable electrical sources is ideal. A recent report noted that Holland now uses 100% renewable energy (primarily wind energy but with some solar from Solar tunnels above the rail lines!
The French have been experimenting with high speed rail and a few years ago tried out a 450 Kph (280 Mph) successfully. It is still on the drawing board but remains a future option. Japan has been working on boosting their famous Shinkansen train to get speeds of 360 Kph (225 Mph). Now just imagine going express from center Denver to center Chicago in 4 hours or even New York to Los Angeles in 13 hours by rail! Of course, you would have to factor in time to get to the rail station. (Note our previous rough calculation of air travel times – NY to LA is 6 hours flying, plus 2 hours gate time before departure and then roughly 1-2 hours between home, parking, etc. for a total of 9-10 hours air travel time.) Germany has also experimented with a high-speed ‘Maglev’ system that also shows promise. While still theoretical we already have the technology to make them work, are vacuum ultra-speed Maglev systems. These could work at speeds literally as high as 3000 Mph because of no need for wheels (magnetic forces are used to separate the train from the rail with no friction – the train is the only moving part). While many countries are working on the technology, it is still just on the drawing board with just test sections of Maglev in places like Germany.
For visitors to Japan, China, or Europe, the high-speed train systems for long journeys are a definite plus. In Spain, the Madrid to Barcelona high-speed train (19 trains a day) takes about 2 ½ hours and costs #35 one way. (It takes 6 hours to drive and 1 ½ hour actual flying time.) It works so well, air flight between the cities is rarely used. If high-speed rail works so well why is it still almost non-existent in North America? Most reasons given are financial in that the cost is prohibitive. Why was it not so for other countries? The other problem has been public support. Most Americans have never experienced the high-speed system and propaganda against high-speed rail is prevalent from special interests who will be somewhat displaced by such a system. In talks where I have laid out the argument for high-speed rail and then taken a simple hands up survey of who would use it if it were in place gives a telling response – over 90% of people like the idea. So, what are the financial realities of high-speed national rail versus the existing freeway road network across the U.S.? Next post….