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

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

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 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. 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 a long distance train trip. 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. (Image: real-time travel information on a German intercity train: it worked beautifully, although only for half an hour).

Still, there is a lot of work to do. 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 surviving 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.

So, some good news, but the situation with long distance European trains is still far from perfect – or even just good. There remain two fundamental problems: 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 somehow looks and smells like crude oil. Apparently, the fasts of the “Orient Express” are past and forgotten. As a final outrage, I can report how, while traveling to Paris, I was awakened a 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, typically, 1 p.m. 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 by 12 a.m. (and they can be quite nasty if you ask 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 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; which is 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 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, is mainly planning. So far, national railway companies have been planning 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 the current strategic thinking implied that an enemy invasion should 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? 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!)

 Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi

30 Comments on "The Train for Berlin: Can Railroads Replace Planes for Long Distance Travel?"

  1. makati1 on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 3:23 am 

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

    Answer: NO! Stupid question. Millions fly every day, thousands of miles, in hours. Half of that travel is across oceans. Hard to lay train tracks there. Not to mention the most railroads in the world travel at almost car speeds. In the u$, it is even worse. The tracks are so old and un-maintained that they are no longer safe for even freight use.

    I guess Ugo is afraid of flying. That seems to be the only reason for such an illogical idea that trains can replace planes in today’s world. Not to mention the time, energy and finances necessary to improve train travel around the world. A few trillion dollars and a hundred years might do it. Dream on Ugo. The EU trains will soon stop running at any speed.

  2. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 4:27 am 

    TGV world speed record 574.8 km_h 3 April 2007:

    Planes travel at 900 kmh, but currently require you to check in 2 hours in advance and the airport is usually not located in the center of the city.

    For the record, I don’t really care much about ultra high speed trains. Why the rush? Long distance travelling should be rare and if it happens it should be done in style, a little bit like a vacation and enjoy the view of the country side.

    My experiences with high speed trains (all 300 kmh):

    Hamburg-Berlin: once
    Cologne-Frankfurt: several times
    Frankfurt Munich: once
    Rome-Milan: this summer

    My favorite rail trip from Holland to Switzerland along the Rhine river, nice and slowly:

    But the number one train trip is from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg in the Swiss Alps. Did that one at least 100 times (including this summer):

    Ugo Bardi could have attended the ASPO conference via groupware software and a fast internet connection and cam. But I know, they all want to travel (including me) and escape a little from daily routine.

  3. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 4:56 am 

    You can use the German rail planner to plan every trip in Europe:

    Verify for instance that Cologne-Frankfurt Airport (250 km and no stops) takes 54 minutes and costs 69 euro.

    If you go to the French rail planner you even get the CO2 cost included for every trip.

    Paris-Lyon = 1.6 kg (?)

  4. Davy on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 5:11 am 

    Trains are one of those great areas for us to revisit as a source of increased resilience and sustainability. The problem is we want to go fast and no one wants to invest in them unless they are highly complex. Fast trains are all the rage now and they have little future in a collapsing world. Europe, Japan, and China will find their fast trains idle one day. At least the infrastructure is there to put slow trains on. That is something.

    The freight systems in the US have been greatly enhanced in the past few decades because of business opportunities. The US has one of finest freight system in the world. Its passenger rail is at the bottom. We have a big opportunity there with that extreme. We also have a large opportunity to find some way to make what we have more adaptable to alternative energy. Diesel is nearly dominant as an American energy source for rail. Can we electrify or introduce alternative liquid fuels to rail? What about hydrogen. Just sayin there is some kind of opportunity here.

    We need to quit thinking about fast train replacing planes like we are going to have a new green civilization that can run on alternatives. We need to build out train networks that get us around slowly and efficiently. Of course this is not part of the business plan of modern civilization but it should be. This is an example of the disconnect of priorities that comes from a society that does not consider collapse as an option. There is so much we can do with rail and instead what is being done is more mal-investment in lifestyles without a future. The techno optimist want big complex projects that generate hype and dollars. It does not matter if these projects will never bring a return. We may have a small window to build out some of these great efforts at sustainability but we are pissing that opportunity away one Elon at a time.

  5. Midnight Oil on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 5:37 am 

    I’m not sure about trains replacing trains for travel…I am SURE that shuffling our two feet back and forth will be the MAIN more of travel for us humans in the very near future!
    Best get in shape now….because you will need to get in high gear when a hungry mob is after you and your can of beans.

  6. dissident on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 6:01 am 

    Europe is made for trains. The distances between major cities are small enough to be able to travel between them in reasonable amounts of time. This does not work for Canada and large parts of the USA. And of course trains are not going to be running under the oceans.

  7. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 6:49 am 

    State of the art trains:

    German ICE interior:

    French TGV interior:

    Russian train service Moscow-Nice (S-France, takes 2 days):

  8. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 7:10 am 

    China to invest 480 billion euro in expanding high speed train network:

    Until 2020 11,000 km extra high speed rail.

    China wants to sell its trains abroad.

    Furthermore, the Chinese want to develop a Transrapid of their own that should be able to travel at 600 kmh.

    German-Chinese container rail will increase from 40k to 100k containers by 2020. 12 days per train is double the speed compared to shipping.

  9. Kenz300 on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 7:39 am 

    Electric vehicles, biking, walking and mass transit are all part of making cities livable and enjoyable.

    Trains are one piece of the puzzle.

    We need a variety of clean transportation options.

    Bike to work day should be everyday. Employers need to provide places to park and lock bicycles and encourage employees to ride a bicycle to work.

    Every school should encourage children to walk to school or ride a bicycle by providing safe places to lock and store bicycles and by supporting safe walking and biking paths that connect schools, homes and businesses. Kids would be healthier and get more exercise if parents stop driving them to school and bought them a bicycle.

    GM sought the destruction of trolley systems in order to promote cars for transportation making cities less people friendly.

  10. Mark on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 9:05 am 

    Before too much longer, most average people won’t be able to fly, unless the government starts underwriting the cost of the tickets.
    The same will be one of the reasons the auto travel dies in this country…the buyers can’t afford the car any longer….

  11. Hello on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 9:24 am 

    Too bad Europeans have to deal with the cost of their 3rd world muslim imports. Pretty soon every train station requires security checkpoints, gated boarding areas, check-in and baggage checks.

  12. Davy on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 9:26 am 

    Mark, that sounds like a good thing to me no matter how it occurs. Let’s try slow travel or just staying home. In fact this is the new “cool” in my book.

  13. joe on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 9:43 am 

    Yeah, trains, good. Ok, most people commute 30-50 miles everyday, so there must be a massive expansion of the capacity and complexity of the short distance rail network. Trams as well. They all could have been great, but regular cars just beat em all because of the nature of the freedom you get. Ok nowdays we are married to our cars but before it wasnt like that. Public mass transit is for boring socialists who want to live like bees in a hive. Besides, the economy wouldn’t withstand dismantling the car industry, its the only one left. Trains are great for people like Winston Smith or People who live in Frankfurt, but most of us love our cars. Thats the main reason that I am totally pessimistic about mass public transport. People will go for mini electric cars they can take anywhere before they agree to pay taxes for mass transit. Its the choice betweeen excerising control or not. Dont get me wrong, its great, its clean its cost effective, but you wait on it, not the other way round. It contravenes human nature. Socialism does too, we all know whats best for society, but do I have to follow the rule? Anyway to reductio ad absurdum (yes i know), communism works, in theory!!!

  14. penury on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 11:35 am 

    People will once again begin to get used to the idea that sometimes speed is not the answer. Destruction of the habitat will gain importance as personal wishes abate and resources begin to dictate what humans can do and stop this thought that humans are masters of the universe and all things must be manipulated for our needs and desires and only humans matter in the scheme of things.

  15. Apneaman on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 12:30 pm 

    I clearly remember all the techno utopian claims from the mid 1990’s about how the PC revolution would eliminate the need for travel just like PC’s would eliminate the need for paper. Both have increased big time.

  16. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 12:46 pm 

    The Utopians were right, the PC revolution did indeed eliminate the need for travel. You are probably not going to believe it, but today it is possibly for globally dispersed people to bicker about whether renewable energy is an extension of fossil fuel or not.

    There is no need to visit the Taj Mahal, you can study all the details with youtube:

    No need to visit a terribly hot country, with guaranteed diarrhea.

    That said, maybe the need to travel has been largely eliminated but not the desire. Two very different things.

    About paper, I am sorry but I hardly ever use my printer anymore, perhaps a few times per year, for signing contracts, scanning and mailing back.

    The bank hardly sends statements anymore, just go online. Also in the office, a printer is hardly used anymore. Just make screen shots and mail them.

  17. Anonymous on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 1:20 pm 

    Clog, you are king of non-sequiturs around here do you realize that? It hardly matters if you personally, don’t use your own printer very much. You are not the world, nor does the world does not measure its paper consumption based on your per-capita patterns, sorry to inform you.

    The observation that widespread computer use(with all those printers attached) has lead to more paper use, not less, is a valid one. Strange how you seem to feel your personal experiences with your own crappy printer apply to the world as a whole, but, again, it doesn’t.

  18. Apneaman on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 1:36 pm 

    ClogO the 72 year old juvenile contrarian.

  19. penury on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 1:45 pm 

    Even tho Cloggie and Kenz both make good sense and good points in favor of trains, electrics, bicycles etc, Each are talking about things that should be done regardless. Yes Europe is small enough that trains are wonderful but some countries are larger and train travel becomes a matter of days not hours. Certainly that will reduce the amount of fossil fuel usage(?) but no one talks of “unintended” consequences. New rail cost money. Construction of new lines or upgrades to existing line require money, Mean while kids in Flint still drink lead as do millions more in the U.S. and who knows what in other places. As long as politicians can point to the fact that infra structure updates are not happening due to cost (or the fact that the MIC needs a few trillion more dollars in profit) you will not see the necessary upgrades to allow even localized high speed rail in the U.S.

  20. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 3:45 pm 

    Strange how you seem to feel your personal experiences with your own crappy printer apply to the world as a whole, but, again, it doesn’t.

    Don’t know about “the world”, but I do know about the Netherlands. Here a company selling office supplies, that confirms my “cubicle observations”:

    De dagelijkse papiertoevoer vermindert, dit komt mede door het stijgende aantal jongeren dat steeds minder print. Ook zijn er meer en meer bedrijven die kiezen voor een “paperless office” met een afname van papier in de kantooromgeving als gevolg. Daarnaast worden er ook meer digitale facturen verzonden. Met name ook in het midden- en kleinbedrijf wordt er op papiergebruik bezuinigd door de digitalisering.

    Translation: paper consumption decreases; young people print less, more and more companies choose to become “paperless”, ever more digital invoices are sent and small companies save money on paper by digitizing.

    But perhaps that in Toronto a lot of people are still fascinated by printing as much paper as possible; after all, back home there were no printers, dunno.

    Morgan-Stanley claims that paper consumption in US firms declined by 9% after introduction of the tablet.

    Strange how you seem to feel your personal experiences with your own crappy printer apply to the world as a whole, but, again, it doesn’t.

    Could it be that this statement was more motivated by personal resentment rather than objective facts? Perhaps you buddy up with your compatriot (I mean the sofa-f*cker), after all together you will stand stronger.

  21. Cloggie on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 4:37 pm 

    ClogO the 72 year old juvenile contrarian.

    You’re a good guy, there is nothing wrong with you, it is not your fault.

  22. Hubert on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 5:47 pm 

    Eventually, even train with stop running.

    Oil Apocalypse:

  23. makati1 on Thu, 29th Dec 2016 5:56 pm 

    penury, all these techie dreams are NOT going to happen as you and I know and understand. Total systems will prevent it. The idea/tech may be available but will not scale up to a real world use. Why? $$$$$$$$$$$$ and Time and Resources and, most importantly, the WILL to do so by TPTB.

    If high speed trains were the goal, they would already be in place all over the world. ZERO in the U$ at this point. They prefer to spend those Trillions on upgrading weapons of mass destruction because that is the industry that owns Washington. The M.I.C.. It is similar all over the world. The money goes for the projects that will make TPTB wealthier, quicker, and give them even more power. That is how the system is set up and it will not change this side of catastrophe as you and I both know.

    These dreams of “transition” and “renewables” are NOT the goals of TPTB. Never will be. Therefore, they will never happen beyond a few ‘tries’ to give the illusion that TPTB are really looking out for our future. They are not. Some have even stated that we are useless eaters and would best die off. They will put up road blocks to see that it never happens. But, the dreamers cannot see this. They want to believe…

  24. Go Speed Racer on Fri, 30th Dec 2016 12:55 am 

    Hey Makita !
    Sure you can lay railroad tracks across the ocean!

    The railroad ties are made of wood ….
    they will float !

    Now then… the locomotive itself, we can go
    back to
    steam engines. Then, if there are
    about 20 carloads
    of garbage, they can
    push the garbage into the boiler
    to get to the next town.

    Each town has garbage, so they would be able to
    get more along the way.

  25. Cloggie on Fri, 30th Dec 2016 3:37 am 

    Hello says Too bad Europeans have to deal with the cost of their 3rd world muslim imports. Pretty soon every train station requires security checkpoints, gated boarding areas, check-in and baggage checks.

    The reaction is underway, won’t be long until in Western Europe the Putin’s, Trump’s and Orban’s will arrive.

    Accurate map of the situation in Holland:

    Summary (in million):

    White foreigners…1.5 (D, UK, US)
    Non-whites………1.9 (of which 800k Muslims)

    So far the only attack has been the murder of infidel Theo van gogh, because he had insulted the prophet.

    Verify at that the PVV is the largest party by far (in the polls, elections in March). Not everything is lost as November 8 has shown, not to mention Putin-Russia.

  26. Davy on Fri, 30th Dec 2016 5:08 am 

    Clog, I am with you on the Muslim point. I see a time very soon where borders are going to be shut. I also do not see a huge Muslim population growth anywhere because I see a crash in population growth everywhere from a collapse process. The details of this process vary because we just can’t know how this is going to unfold. It is a secret of fate as an unknown. Immigration can be stopped quickly through various means. One is at the borders and the others in the source countries. The Russian Syrian victory is going to slow the exodus from Syria. Maybe Iraq can be stabilized. We know others are going to fail but I see an important milestone breached with the movement of people. This is going to impact globalism. Free movement of people in increasing affluence is going to shift to protected economies with declining affluence. It is plain to see. Walls are going to go up and the population pressures will now be like steam building in a closed circuit. A failed state period is ahead. The big question is can the global system survive these changes and how long.

  27. Simon on Fri, 30th Dec 2016 6:38 am 

    Train from Paris to Berlin is 8 hours and 1000 Km with one change.

    Italy is locked behind the alps so not a valid comparison

    Switzerland is not in the EU so .. sod em

    Washington DC to Miami is about 1200 Km, so could be done in a day

    Washington to San Francisco is 4500km so could be done in two days.

    Train lines could be built out by forcing oil onto …. RAIL not pipeline, then get the moguls to build out the rail

  28. makati1 on Fri, 30th Dec 2016 6:53 am 

    Simonm, you are dreaming. They cannot even build a short line in California. And, what happens if the thousands who fly between those cities EVERY DAY wanted to take the train? 50 to a car means a train hundreds of cars, several miles long. What could pull it at high, safe, speeds? They cannot even haul oil without several “accidents” per year and at low speeds. High speed trains? Not going to happen.

  29. Simon on Fri, 30th Dec 2016 7:12 am 


    TGV does 200 to a carriage in comfort, and can move 20 carriages at 330 KMH

    you are building lines now to transport oil on rail, it can be done (probably for less than the cost of a vanity trip to mars.

    I am sure SNCF would be happy to consult to make your train lines safer

  30. Lawfish1964 on Fri, 30th Dec 2016 1:42 pm 

    Why is speed so damned important? Travelling slowly is wonderful. I have crossed the Atlantic from France to New York on the QE2 twice and it is by far the best way to cross the ocean. It’s heading east to west, so you cross one time zone per day, meaning the days are 25 hours long. You dine luxuriously, have plenty to keep you amused, get hammered at night, then get up and do it again.

    Trains and ships are the future. I just wish this country could get it together on the trains. Our passenger rail system is horrid.

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