Friday, June 7, 2013

The Trains of Europe – A Mini Grand Tour

High Speed Milan - Trenitalia
For the past two weeks we've traveled Europe: London, Paris, Geneva, Montreux, Milan and Florence. All by using Europe’s elite high speed rail system, the Eurostar under the channel, the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) from Paris to Geneva, local to Montreux and another fast train from Montreux to Milan via Trenitalia Line (an Italian subsidary). It is without a doubt the most civil way to travel from one place to another that doesn’t include a cruise director. While I continue to rail (pun intended) about high speed rail in California, as you race through the spectacular scenery south of Paris and approach the Alps, you are mildly shocked at how nice it all is and quite. Tables, room to move around, power jacks, roomy toilets (such as they are). Delightful! And did I mention they leave on time.

My problem with the state of California version of HSR, as I have written, is that they haven’t a clue as to what it will cost. And remember that most of the countries that have these high speed rail systems are broke or very close to it. For them bankruptcy is not an issue, it’s a reality. But I whine and thus digress. The cost in 2008 for the Milan to Bologna portion of the trip cost 64.6 million dollars a mile to build (133.5 miles). Just the track construction from San Francisco to Los Angeles would then be 24.5 billion, I'm sure!

Milano Centrale
The terminals of major cities are magnificent and chaotic, the St. Pancras railway station in London (with the highest security – the others have almost none) is spectacular in its Victorian red brick and in the Eurostar waiting room, modern and efficient. The Paris Gare d’Austerlitz is the gateway to the south-east of France and the line to Geneva, it is old and very French in design but has evolved into a rabbit warren of walks and ramps because of the expansion of the lines. Milan’s is huge and you can still feel the exterior’s visual impact of the fascists and Mussolini when it was completed in 1931. The size and scale is something so Italian. Florence is disappointing considering the demand on its trains by the tourists. But Norman Foster is designing a new multi-level station.
Florence to Milan - 186 MPH - top speed can be 224 MPH

To the traveler in Europe it’s ho-hum, nothing special. It’s expected; trains leave and arrive on time, no big deal. For us American’s it’s unlike anything we know. It’s how AMTRAK should be if there were competent managers about, but since it’s not, it is on the bottom of long distance travel modes. In the U.S. its car, then plane, not much else works well enough except in the northeast corridor between Washington, NY and Boston. Trains are for local commuting – not long distance. Maybe that will change, maybe it won’t. But it won’t be during the next ten years.

We enjoyed it; wide roomy seats, places to store your luggage, convenient terminal location usually in the middle of the town, clean restrooms – what more to want. And ticket prices are competitive when compared against renting a car or trying to fly for distances less than 400 miles. After that time becomes the issue, not cost.

Over the next few weeks I’ll offer more insights into the state of things in Europe – at least from my perspective. One would think that Italy was about to implode from all the bad news – not so and the pizza is still spettacolare

By the way were were spared from even one strike across four countries - wow!

Stay tuned . . . . . . . . .

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