Monday, December 26, 2016

The Train for Berlin: Can Railroads Replace Planes for Long Distance Travel?

This November, I went by train from Locarno, in Switzerland, all the way to Berlin, for the conference of ASPO Germany.  The trip lasted more than 11 hours and it involved four different trains, it was the longest daytime trip by train I ever took in my life. It was one of the several tests I have been performing during the past few years to see how and how much I could avoid using planes for traveling within Europe. (Above: crossing another train in Switzerland).

There doesn't exist a sustainable fuel that can power a passenger plane; at least not at the same price and for the same performance we can obtain from fuels derived from fossil hydrocarbons. While airlines dream of impossible "green planes," we need to find something that can take people from a place to another without emitting greenhouse gases, at least over medium-long distances. Maybe, one day, we'll develop a new generation of solar powered airships but, for the time being, the good, old trains look like the best option. Trains run on electricity, so they are directly compatible with solar and wind energy. They don't even need rubber tires or bitumen for roads - both produced from fossil fuels. So, I have been experimenting for quite a while with traveling by train in Europe and let me report to you about this experience.

First: the good news. During the past few years, the development of on-line services has made enormously easier to plan long distance train trips. The European railroads have also improved their ticket sales interface and you can now buy fully electronic tickets from one single national site for a multi-country trip. This is a big improvement. For instance, up to a few years ago, if you wanted to board a Swiss train, you had to have a physical ticket issued in a Swiss station or, if you didn't live in Switzerland, you had to have it shipped to you by mail, which was both slow and expensive.

Then, many railroad networks have now an on-board Wi-Fi system. That's a big plus because a long trip by train becomes actually a chance to do some work in holy peace - something that you can't do on a plane, where you can't even recharge your laptop (and not even open it, if you travel in economy class). In the image you see real-time travel information on a German intercity train.

Still, there is a lot of work to do to improve the service of railroads. For instance, in Switzerland, trains have no Wi-Fi (maybe because motion sickness is almost guaranteed if you travel in the Alpine region). Even in Germany, with all their hi-tech, the connection during my travel to Berlin worked only for the first half hour and then it died for the rest of the trip (and they wanted me to pay 6 euros for it!). In the picture, you can see that I was reading Epictetus on the train, a stoic philosopher who helped me survive the lack of an Internet connection! But, surely, that can be improved: in Italy, for instance, the Wi-Fi connection in the high-speed trains comes for free and it normally works very well.

Then, there remain two fundamental problems with long distance rail trips: one is that night trains are becoming an extinct breed in Europe, the other that the high-speed trains are not conceived for long distance travel.

First, sleeper trains. Theoretically, they are a very good idea: you travel overnight, while you sleep, and you arrive in the morning, ready for business or for sightseeing. This kind of trip may be considered also as something romantic if you can share the compartment with a significant other (assuming that neither of you suffers from motion sickness). Of course, sleeping in one of these trains is not the same thing as sleeping at home: the paradigm of the sleeper train is the 6-passenger compartment, hot and poorly ventilated, that can give you a feeling of what must have been like to be deported to a concentration camp during the second world war. But, even if you book a place in a single or a double compartment, the price is not unreasonably high if you think that you are saving the cost of one night at a hotel.

Unfortunately, there are big problems with sleeper trains. One is that they are old, poorly kept, and don't smell so good. In my personal experience, they are also often delayed (two hours of delay the last time I went to Paris). Then, all the romanticism of the experience goes away when, in the morning, you are served a pure cardboard croissant and a cup of coffee that looks and smells like crude oil. Apparently, the fasts of the old "Orient Express" are past and forgotten. As a final outrage, I can report how, while traveling from Italy to Paris, I was awakened at 2 a.m. by the Swiss police who wanted to check my bags. Imagine that your plane from London to New York is stopped midway by the Icelandic police and made to stop in Rejkiawick so that they can check your bags!

But the main problem with sleeper trains is another one. When you arrive in the morning to your destination, you badly need a shower, but your hotel won't let you into your room before 1 p.m. (that is, if you are lucky, because some hotels won't let you in before 3 pm.). The problem is even worse with your trip back home. Your train leaves at, maybe, 11 p.m., but your hotel will unceremoniously kick you out of your room at 12 a.m. (and they can be quite nasty if you ask them for an extra half-hour). Then, maybe you have some business or sightseeing in the afternoon but then you are stranded in a foreign city with your bags and with nowhere to stay except in an unappealing waiting room in a train station. No wonder that these trains seem to be disappearing from the European railroad network.

Then, there are high-speed trains; wonderful machines that could compete with planes even for relatively long trips. At a speed typically over 200 km/hour, a train could cover the ca. 1500 km from Rome to Berlin in some 6-7 hours. Of course, you should add the time for a few stops along the way and the fact that not the whole network allows for high speed. Still, you could likely make it in less than 10 hours. That's reasonable for a comfortable daytime trip, where you can relax and work while you travel. But, in practice, there is no way to get to Berlin from Rome or Florence in a single day. My train trip to Berlin started from Switzerland; it was less than 1,000 km and it took more than 11 hours; an average speed of less than 100 km/h. The reason is that I had to change three times and that involved considerable idle time in stations (image: a coffee shop in Bellinzona, Switzerland. Nice place, and they had good Italian espresso coffee, but it was a lot of lost time)

So, despite the recent improvements, there still a lot of work to do before railways can become competitive with planes in Europe. Something that could make sleeper trains more practical would be the possibility of renting rooms in hotels for half a day at a reasonable price. That makes a big difference in comfort: I remember having done that in St. Petersburg, in Russia, while waiting for the night train for Moscow. But, in Western Europe, renting a room by half-day or by the hour remains something that hotels don't want to do, perhaps because they are afraid for their reputation. Things might be changing and some internet sites have appeared that offer this service for business travelers.

But the real problem with sleeper trains is that they are in direct competition with low-cost airlines and, as things stand today, trains can't just compete. Airlines offer a faster service for the same or lower prices. Only a serious carbon tax could change things and make sleeper trains competitive, but that doesn't seem to be coming fast.

The future looks more favorable for high-speed day trains. The main problem, here, seems to be related to planning. So far, national railway companies have been planning their schedules only at the national level, also because of the limited interoperability of the railway networks. In some ways, it seems that railroads are still operating as they did at the time of the first world war; when people thought that an enemy invasion could have been slowed down by making the national rail gauge different from that of neighboring countries. Different gauges in Europe still exist in Russia and in Spain and the railways operate different voltages AC and DC, varying from 750 to 25,000 volts. Also, the signaling systems vary from country to country. The result is that, for instance, high-speed Italian trains cannot run in Germany or in France, and the reverse is also true.

Nevertheless, progress is being made and the latest generation of high-speed trains is built with interoperability in mind. Soon, these trains should be able to roam the whole European network. What is lacking here, mainly, is a serious push from the European Government to convince national railroads that connecting the main European capitals by high-speed trains is important and useful. But the EU has done very little in this sense, so far. One more failure for them (they seem to collect failures as some people collect stamps or butterflies). There used to be a European Railway Agency, but something must have gone wrong with it because it was closed down and there is now a brand new European Union Agency for Railways. We can only hope they will do better than their predecessors.

So, is there hope that we'll be able to take again long travels by train in comfort and style in Europe, as it could be done in the 1930s? Could we revive the fasts of the old "Orient Express"? It is surely possible, but it will take some work and some strong political will. That will be absolutely necessary if we want to adapt European travel to the objectives of the 2015 Paris treaty. In the meantime, the most adventurous of us will still do their best to shun planes in favor of trains. (image below, the Italian FrecciaRossa high-speed train, photographed at the central station in Florence. Allow me a small display of national pride if I say that it is the best train I have ever traveled on - expensive, though!)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)