Railing along

International train traveling isn’t what is used to be before the age of low fare air travel. Well, don’t blame me. I keep doing my part. Recently I went to Geneva via Copenhagen and Essen (and home again) in a most comfortable and civilized fashion. The environment needs better transportation but a number of factors must be addressed if railroads should gain some ground again. Here’s my top-ten list, in no particular order. 

The price. It’s not unusual for a first class train ticket to cost more than business-class on the plane. Deregulation with competing operators should help a lot. Who establishes a “Ryan Rail”? 

The reservation system. I tend to do my own research, finding out my favorite route from A to B with exact connections as well as seat requirements. My specification is often complete. Still it can take an hour (or two!) on the phone before the person taking my call has succeeded with the reservations and implemented my collection of tickets. This is outrageously awkward and only true enthusiasts would go through that twice. 

The packaging. I leave Stockholm with a bunch of tickets. Each one is an agreement with a specific national railroad company, for instance the German DB. Their responsibility begins and ends on their own train. Where I come from and, more importantly, where I’m going is of no interest to them. No one is responsible for transporting me from A to B. This becomes painfully evident whenever there is a delay and I miss a connection. 

The view. Window-cleaning on trains is badly neglected in the Nordic countries. Learn from the Swiss, they understand that tourists actually want to see something through clean glass. How difficult can this be? 

The monitors. In Swedish stations monitors are used to provide up-to-the-minute information on arrivals and departures. On the continent there is often one major centrally located wall-covering display but few if any monitors. Instead, there is a display on each platform indicating the next event for a particular track. The difference is significant. If your connection is moved to another platform you won’t be reading about it while waiting at the usual platform. If you miss the load-speaker announcement, you might miss your train as well. 

The food. A long-lived and nowadays totally unfounded myth says that Swedish SJ serves poor food in general and plastic sandwiches in particular. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’d advise anyone interested to try the three-course meal served at your seat in X2000 business class. It’s a delight. Likewise in the bistro or conventional restaurant car where I’ve seldom been disappointed. In other countries it’s another story. I’ve had a depressing and expensive lunch in a Swiss train crossing the Alps (although the view compensated for the food!) and the Intercity from Rome to Sicily with its Chef Express has been a gastronomical scandal every time I’ve tried it, most recently in November 2003. 

The language. Slowly, slowly we’re moving towards the day when you can easily make yourself understood with English on any major train and in all major stations in Europe. On my latest trip to Switzerland there was only one elderly woman in a German ICE who lost her temper, shouted “Sprechen Sie Deutsch mit mir!” and turned her back on my question (about a malfunctioning AC, incidentally). She was the only exception on this trip. The other staff were friendly, helpful and most of them fairly fluent in English. Things have improved considerably in the ten years I’ve been crisscrossing the continent by rail. 

The air. European trains are increasingly smoke-free these days. Sweden took the decision several years ago. Even Italy has joined these days, who would have believed that? Way to go, Silvio! Pockets of resistance remain, like in Switzerland, but there is hope. What a relief. 

The security. In terms of accidents, trains are statistically among the safest means of transportation. That’s all fine but security for your belongings is another story. On a long journey you cannot possibly bring your luggage with you all the time in the restaurant car, to the toilet and so on. Amazingly, there is no way to lock your compartment from the outside in some continental sleeping cars. A simple cardkey-system couldn’t be that difficult to adopt? 

The speed. On real long distances, like Stockholm-London, trains cannot possibly compete with airplanes in terms of speed. But as high-speed connections, such as the Eurostar under the channel, become more frequent the disadvantage decreases. And on mid-distances it’s just as fast to travel from city to city and avoid commuting to and from airports as well as excessive check-in margins. We need an integrated European network of high-speed trains, twice the speed of the current Swedish flagship X2000.

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