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Leon White


Thanks for this article, very informative and reminds me of my three years of travelling exclusively by train in Europe on Interrail passes. I think that is another option that was not covered here: Interrail is usually not valid without a significant surcharge on most high speed trains. Of course, living in China now, I can enjoy long distance high speed night trains :)

Kris De Decker


The surcharge for InterRail depends a lot on the country and rail operator. In Germany, you can board a high speed train without paying a surcharge. The other extreme is Thalys: on all their routes, they charge you the full ticket price.

In France, it depends on the time of the day, but surcharges are reasonable. I don't know how much you have to pay extra on the new high speed connection between Paris and Barcelona, which is operated by Renfe and SNCF.

InterRailers also have to pay a surcharge on night trains (it used to be free, but not anymore). It's often around 30 euro for a "couchette". I find it often worthwhile to pay it, since you save yourself the cost of a hotel room. On the night train between Paris and Barcelona, however, the surcharge was rather high.

InterRail is my last resort. When I book a trip less than two weeks in advance, it is almost always the cheapest option. It is very slow if you want to avoid surcharges, but also comfortable because you enjoy total freedom. However, I wonder how long InterRail will remain available...

Enjoy the high speed night train!

Gidon Gerber


The old trains had another incredibly convenient feature: in the compartments (1st and 2nd class) you could pull the seats toward the centre so that they would be completely flat and form a bed on which you could get a quick nap or even a good night's sleep - without paying any surcharge. It was very useful for travelling very early in the morning without having gotten enough sleep at home. You could even turn the entire compartment into one big flat surface for the whole family.

I have however less fond memories of couchettes. Normally at least one of the other passengers would snore loudly, or have smelly feet, or wake up everyone at 5.45 to announce his imminent arrival in Salzburg with his mobile phone.

Kris De Decker


Snoring can be a problem, yes. Especially if you are a man and you are on a night train that has separate couchettes for men and women (like the Trenhotel). Train companies (and youth hostels) should reserve special compartments and rooms for people who snore. It also depends on the amount of people in the compartment: three or six beds makes a big difference.

You can always book a private cabin, of course. Especially if you are travelling as a couple, that could be very affordable (At times, I have paid less per person for a double private compartment than for a bed in a shared couchette). And even a private compartment for yourself might still be cheaper than the high speed train, if you're lucky.

I mean: if you "were" lucky. I still have to get used to talk about night trains in the past tense...

Bruno R


While stating the advantages of plane, completely missing the time and cost to travel to the airport (which tends to be very remote for lowcost airlines), the time needed to register etc... You can come take a Thalys 10mn before departure, and the railway station is in the city...



I still have a fond memory on my interrail trip in 1999. I rode the Amsterdam-Paris train overnight - and in fact, I rode all my trips over night, each and every night for 13 days in a row. I did not use the trains for transportation only, but also as a place to sleep. With about 130 Euro plus the ticket I was simply riding as long and as far as the available money would get me. One of the most interesting adventures of my life. All trains were overnight long distance trains. France was a bit uncomfortable since they had these plastic seats that were designed in a way that sleeping on two of them was a bit awful. Nowadays, I would probably opt for couchettes.

It's too bad that the time of these trains seems to be coming to an end. They provided such a great and inspiring freedom to me when I just finished school.

Kris De Decker


@ Bruno R

That's the reason why those who can afford it take a high speed train instead of a plane when travel time is under 3 hours -- I thought this was obvious enough.

However, time is money only for those who earn good money. Half of the trips between Barcelona and Madrid, for instance, are still by plane, even though the plane takes longer than the high speed train if you take into account the time loss that you mention. Why? Because the plane is much cheaper.

Andre L.


There are several conceptual flaws on this article. I'll discuss some.

Low-cost air travel (which today is not anymore the domain of "low-cost carriers", since many traditional airlines aggressively compete on price for short haul journeys) has been killing night trains, high-speed substitution present or not. Most people, as the market goes, would happily trade one night on a moving train (or ferry or bus) for 90-120 minutes on a cramped airplane + time roaming within airports. As with other transportation solutions, it also creates its own demand (like middle-income professionals in London being able to take bank holidays in Croatia or the Canarias, something that would have not been possible with any train). As for whether people can truly rest on a moving vehicle, that is an endless and pointless discussion - people who "save" a night on a train, plane or ferry will fiercely defend it, people who are not comfortable sleeping-while-moving will consider it a night lost in precarious sleeping/napping.

The author also mixes up commercial decisions (pricing system) with costs of travel. Many night trains used to be subsidized, heavily subsidized indeed, especially domestic ones. Changing towards a yield-management pricing style (like airlines) is not related to the speed trains travel around. In Italy, for instance, regular prices on all routes but regional short-distance traffic were raised, a lot, and counterbalanced by more advance-purchase discounts and variable pricing. Yield-management aims to fill trains as much as possible earning as much as possible, advance purchase discounts is one way to achieve that. None of it has anything to do with rail technologies used for travelling. There is nothing inherently related to high-speed rail tracks that requires yield management pricing.

The issues of subsidization of rail are important to be discussed, because many countries are clawing back train operations that don't break even, for a variety of reasons. Nothing would preclude subsidies to make high-speed travel cheap, but budgetary concerns.

Also ignored are capital and operational cost distinctions. Building high-speed rail is expensive, but once works are completed, maintenance cost is rather low. High-speed rail tracks have, by necessity, advanced automated systems that greatly reduce manpower needed to operate tracks. Being also built to modern standards, high-speed tracks are fully segregated from obstacles, grade crossings, and tunnel through mountains (instead of negotiating avalanche-prone slopes). All of this make high-speed marginal costs of operation cheaper.

Kris De Decker


@ Andre L.

> You write: "Building high-speed rail is expensive, but once works are completed, maintenance cost is rather low."

Compared to building costs, maintenance costs pale into insignificance. It costs on average 18 million euro to build 1 km of high speed rail, while maintenance costs are 30,000 euro per km. Even if maintenance costs of high speed rail would be somewhat lower for high speed rail than for low speed rail, this is not going to make a significant difference. [See the research paper quoted in note 10]

Furthermore, you don't mention operational costs. You have buildings costs, operational costs, and maintenance costs. The first two are the most important and they are higher for high speed rail. So even if maintenance costs for high speed rail are lower, who cares?

> Next, you state: "Many night trains used to be subsidized, heavily subsidized indeed, especially domestic ones."

All transportation modes are subsidized by European governments: air, road, low speed rail and high speed rail. The construction of the complete high speed rail infrastructure is financed with tax money. You can run millions of night trains with that money, for hundreds of years.

> Then you say that "yield-management pricing style is not related to the speed trains travel around".

That's correct. Not only Italian rail operators, but for example also Finnish rail operators have introduced these pricing mechanisms. It indeed increased the income of the train company, but of course at the expense of the customers. The promotional fares induce demand, while regular passengers see their costs increased. It is a pricing system that does not belong in public transportation.

By the way, even without yield management high speed trains would have considerably higher ticket fares than low speed trains (because building and operational costs are higher -- see above).

> Lastly, you write that "low-cost air travel has killed night trains, high-speed substitution present or not".

Logically, the advance of low-cost airlines did the night trains no good. The same can be said from the car. Railroads have lost much more traffic to cars than to planes.

But watch this: when the Thalys was introduced in 1996, there were no low-cost airlines operated on that route. The cheaper rail alternative was abolished without a low-cost plane for the masses. In 1996, air fares on that route (as on most European routes) were still higher than rail fares, even higher than high speed fares.

The night train between Barcelona and Paris has been running for many years despite the presence of low-cost airlines on that route. It was a hugely popular train, and more than once I had to take an alternative route because it was booked full. It was only killed when the high speed train arrived.

Airlines and cars compete with trains, but the railways themselves have decided to kill their own products. They could as well have decided to invest the money in lower fares and more comfortable trains -- so that people could sleep better -- instead of in building a whole new high speed rail network. Just imagine how the low speed network would look if it would have received all the money that is being invested in high speed rail.

Any more conceptual flaws?



Transportation in Europe is changing. I agree that fast trains are too expensive. I can't afford any more last minute Paris or London trip by fast train. The train is becoming the luxury city center to city center option.
Planes are the only option for longer trips and can be cheaper for annoying city->airport to airport->city shorter trips.

For me, the solution is the buses network. I use Eurolines or Megabus and I can travel in most countries for a cheaper price and last minute tickets are not much more expensive.

Andre L.


I still think you are tackling three non-strongly related issues: commercial policies of railways, budgetary/fiscal policies on transportation subsidization and railway technology.

States used different financial engineering operations to build their high-speed networks. Italian government just took up the tab and put most of it on general budget. France threw debt on RFF. Germany used infrastructure funds. How this debt is paid is a separate discussion, it might or might not be tied to fares collected (likewise a new highway might or might not have its construction costs covered by tolls collected from drivers). It is not appropriate to compare capital costs with possible alternative uses on operating and maintenance expenses.

Use of yield-management has its ups and downs. It tackles price elasticity of different group of travelers, since not everyone is willing to pay the same to travel on a given date by a giving mode. Last-minute long-distance travel is often the domain of a subset of costumers which, in average, have are willing to pay much more to take the trip (regardless of whether they are business people travelling on corporate tab or someone travelling urgently for family matters, that is irrelevant from the railway revenue perspective).

The discussion on whether high-speed rail has higher costs must take into account policy and market decisions, such as charging higher access fees for high-speed tracks. If government decides to not collect as much fees from the railway path allocations on high speed tracks, part of that cost would go down. High-speed rail operators that are separate entities (Eurostar, Thalys, Italo) turn on hefty pre-interest gross profits.

You need to consider that many of the lower-speed routes were once-daily services. A Trenhotel has a total capacity of 220 passengers depending on its composition - that is 1.5 short-haul jet like the A320. When fully implemented in one year, there will be 5 daily high-speed trains between Paris and Barcelona, each carrying at least double the capacity of Trenhotel. A quick search for flights between Barcelona and Paris on second week of January (http://www.kayak.com/flights/BCN-PAR/2014-01-08) shows 19 direct non-stop flights between both cities (excluding phantom duplicate code-share flights).

Finally, low-cost high-speed train operators are starting to appear. France has the OuiGo (www.ouigo.com), which operates high-seat density pre-boarding trains with vending machines instead of restaurant cars, jacking up to 1.300 passengers on a single trainset.

Kris De Decker



If there are going to be running five high speed trains per day between Paris and Barcelona, let's hope they won't be running empty. Spain has a great tradition of building high speed lines that nobody uses. One line between Toledo and Cuenca saw just 16 people a day using it on average and was shut down this year (source: http://www.ejolt.org/2013/07/why-so-fast-high-speed-train-crash-questions-our-need-for-speed/)

Moreover, you can run five daily high speed trains on the route, but you could as well decide to run five or ten night trains on the route. The capacity would be the same.

By the way, I think these are the figures you are looking for: last Sunday, the Spanish/Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia quoted the French railway operator SNCF, saying that the train now has 5% of market share on the route BCN-Paris, and that they hope to increase that to 8% with the arrival of the complete high speed connection.

Concerning the French idea of running low-cost high-speed trains: good luck with that on routes with travel times above those of planes. If you jack up people on trains like you do on planes, but the plane is faster, then everybody will still take the plane. If you have to travel uncomfortably, then you want it to be over as fast as possible.

Lastly, I really couldn't care less about the financial engineering that was used to finance the high speed train lines. What counts is who pays the bill in the end, and since 2008 we all know who that will be.



220 Euros you say? My trip from London to Eastern Europe (2200km) costs about 140 for diesel.



Kris, very informative and well-written article, a curious point of view I've never heard. While reading over this, I can't help but think that the pricing for HSR will go down dramatically once the fixed costs are paid off by revenue, however many years that may be. This begs the question, wherein does the unsustainable nature of HSR stem from, the source of energy?

I do acknowledge that the speed difference between traditional rail makes HSR significantly less efficient, but I'd say that construction of high speed rail lines now are of vital importance to future travel in Europe when petroleum inevitably starts becoming expensive (in however many years that may be)

Meanwhile in America..



I think one of the things that drives HSR as a concept, is the idea that 'time' is everything. Bigger, better, faster. Why we need to 'save' all this time is seldom mentioned directly. Travel time needs to be kept to a minimum, even though that goal is seldom met in reality, for a reason. Why? because our in corporate totalitarian state, time spent travelling keeps us away from our real jobs, consuming. 'We' want fast, $99.00 flights to disneyland so we can get back to our true jobs, consuming, on Monday. Or similarly, we want HSR to get us to {whever-ever} fast, so we get on with the job of consuming again asap. Elon Musks latest tech-no-boondoggle, the hyperloop, is a perfect picture of the 'speed is everything' mentality


Leaving aside the minor problems that the US of Oil lacks the technical know-how, the money, the land, or any means to make this a reality. The real question of who would benefit from being able to travel from L.A., a city with no tangible center, to S.F in 45 mins is seldom articulated. Of course the entire idea is silly and so is Musk, but its still all about, bigger, faster, better.

If HSR or high cost jets exclude large portions of the population then that really isnt a problem either since they have no money anyhow so serving them is seen as a waste of valuable resources.

The high speed over-all approach is not to limited to trains. Road expansion is also marketed using pretty much the exact same language. Almost every big road\highway project I have ever seen, the primary selling feature is always, the new road will save you 'time'. At least until induced\latent demand kicks in. Then it stops saving you time.

I think as long as we have this idea that we have to move people at the maximum possible speed, even if it doesn't make sense energetically, or financially to do so, well keep on building systems that we cant afford. Nor does it help that our market totalitarian system that places a premium on getting people back to there cubicles as fast as possible.

Kris De Decker



The fixed costs of high speed rail will never be paid off by revenue, because as the article states, there is not one high speed line that recovers capital costs, and only in some countries some lines can recover operating costs. But your point is valid in the sense that one day the capital costs will be recovered by the tax money paid for the construction.

The unsustainable nature of high speed rail stems from building the infrastructure on the one hand, and the higher speed of the trains on the other hand. Both raise costs and energy consumption compared to low speed trains -- which are in fact not or not much slower because the speed of a train is just one of many factors that determine travel time [it's not just about night trains -- see part 2 of the article].

We could build cheaper and less-energy intensive if we opt for a network of somewhat slower trains. In that case, many more people could afford to travel on these trains, and the energy investment could be recovered much faster. We would get more value for our money.

As DC notes in the comment just after yours, the fundamental problem is our distorted view of progress. I think you also demonstrate this when you write that "the construction of high speed rail lines are of vital importance to future travel in Europe when petroleum inevitably starts becoming expensive". Why?

Why is it of vital importance to be able to travel at maximum speeds of 350 km/h? What could go possibly wrong if maximum speeds would go down to 200 km/h instead? If you want to operate trains on renewable energy, the need to reduce speeds only becomes larger.

Kris De Decker


The article has generated lots of comments at Hacker News: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6920871

Interesting is that many people are relating that they have switched to buses for medium distance trips because trains have become too expensive.

bob fearn


My grandmother, who lived to be almost 100, used to say, "better is the enemy of the good". So a good train system can be wrecked by building a better (high speed) system.

What we seem to be facing are the ego-maniacs who want to make an impression rather than practical people who would just do what would work well for most people.

Thanks for this very useful article.



While I agree with you're idea of a "distorted view of progress", but I think there's a few things to consider. The first is that HSR (if you make a distinction between rail) is still in its infancy relative to airplanes and automobiles. In essence we air currently viewing the historically most primitive HSR engines, rolling stock,and overhead wiring etc., which will likely greatly improve in efficiency and total quality over time, much like the automobile (ignoring the modern demand for features that cover this up. It seems worth investing in late rather than never, much like sustainable technology could have been more developed in the 20th century instead of hydrocarbon tech. I don't think the global demand for high speed transport of goods or people will ever completely disappear, in a few instances (none that I can offhand think of) there may even be a need for it in a globalized world. I don't see why rail travel at 350 km/h can't be sustainable feasible in the future, maybe that's just idealism.

David Locke


I remember taking the intercity from zweibrucken to Augsburg one night. The postal service was sorting mail on the train. What did the postal services do when the night trains ended?



That is a shame, because trains are still by far, the most efficient way to move people we have, outside of bikes of course. The diesel, or gas-powered bus, is IMO, just an oversized car. Loud, noisy, polluting, uncomfortable, and are no more efficient per-passenger-mile, than amerikas garbage-can cars. It may turn out that HSR is, in effect, pricing itself out of its own market.

I cant take a train to Vancouver, about 4 hours away, at any speed. Nor can I get to Calgary (7-8 hrs.) The national capital 1800 miles? No route possible, directly or indirectly. There are rail lines going to those places of course, but what are they actually being used for? Hauling coal,tar-sands goop, lumber or other raw materials to ports, or swtichyards in Vancouver for 'export' to the US at below-market rates. But back to my options here in my local space.

If I want to go to the places I mentioned, choices are:

Planes-Heavily subsidized, polluting, and least efficient way to travel ever devised.
Car-See planes.
Bus-See car. (Least subsidized of the three). Service sporadic, expensive, and uncomfortable, and amazingly slow.

If HSR can never recover its capital costs then the cars-onlys roadways dont either. According to the Victoria Tranportation institute,
only about 2/3 of all road costs in North America are captured by taxes and user fees. The rest if deficit financed or simply allowed to fall further into dis-repair. Not that there is anything wrong with public subsidies in all instances, but everywhere you look public resources ALWAYS seem to end up going to the least-efficient, most energy intensive options we can think of. HSR looks like its joining airlines and cars-only transportation as a subsidy sink.



Airplanes used to be prohibitively expensive too.

High speed trains is an investment and it's a good one. Prices will go down in time.

Andre L.


@DC: higher speed trains are interesting not only for making same trips shorter, but allowing people to travel further on the same time.

Today, it is perfectly feasible to leave Paris Saturday morning, arrive in London for lunch, spend a night in town (theater, live music, whatever), sleep there and come back next Sunday morning in time to have lunch in Paris again. That would have never been possible with trains before (you could fly, but that would take more total time).

In Italy, Milan and Florence are as close as 1h40min. That makes it possible for people to travel for leisure from one city to another and come back same day. In the past, that would not have been a feasile proposition.

I think it is always positive to bring people closer in time to places, not because of some corporatist ideology, but because regardless of what we do our lifetime is more or less limited, and spending less time being transported between places we want to go and/or seeing more places during our lives is ultimately progress.

Let's remember: the average Englishman of early 19th Century had a "life radius" of no more than 40 miles. Today, occasional transcontinental flights are available to a significant part of mankind (at least some 30% of it)



But that is inevitable. Compare automobiles from 100 years ago and today. Lorries, buses - they made a huge leap. Trains should run ahead of them to be competitive.

Just play few sessions in OpenTTD, while it is a very simplistic simulator, you would easily see how as the automotive industry progresses, trains should be sifted in longer-distance heavier-load higher-throughput niche - or be extinct.



Yes and no. As an avid rail traveller I have seen the changes in Europe over the last 35 years: We said goodbye to pre-war technology and heavily subsidized not-so-fast trains. Business travellers welcome a viable alternative to air travel.

When it comes to cost - especially in Italy this meant much higher prices. In the 80s I used to hitchhike accross Europe except in Italy with its ridiculous low rail fares.

While in Germany, taking the ICE is no big deal, the extra cost is 5 Euro (or 2,50 with popular 50% BahnCard), which is next to nothing on long routes. The situation in Switzerland and Austria is similar. In Germany we still have a healthy second tier with InterCity trains serving smaller cities, and private companies do cherry picking on select routes.

Most international night trains in the west have vanished, as have some air connections, thanks to TGV and ICE.

Kris De Decker


@ Bernhard (#25):

Austria and Switzerland have no high speed trains, and Germany runs their high speed trains on common tracks, making them slower but also more affordable, as you say. Quite importantly, these are among the European countries where most people use the train. As I explain in the second part of the article (your last sentence shows you did not read that), train travel is still affordable in Central and Eastern Europe.

@ Andre (#23):

You write: "Let's remember: the average Englishman of early 19th Century had a "life radius" of no more than 40 miles. Today, occasional transcontinental flights are available to a significant part of mankind (at least some 30% of it)"

Great, but don't forget the negative consequences: fossil fuel dependence, climate change. Nobody denies that high speed trains bring advantages -- to those who can afford them. The point is that the technology is sold to us as a means to make transportation more sustainable, which it does not.

@ DC (#21)

It is indeed ironic that American trains are mainly used to haul around unsustainable cargo. For example, without trains, we would not be able to burn as much coal as we do now. It's a similar story. A train is not by definition a sustainable choice. You have to ask why it is running, who or what is onboard, and for what reason.

@ David (#20)

I am afraid that the future of postal services is as gloomy as that of low speed trains.

@ Omari (#19)

High speed trains have been around for quite some time now. The first modern high speed rail dates from 1964 (in Japan). That's exactly half a century ago. The first French TGV (which was the first high speed train exceeding 250 km/h in commercial service) was launched in 1981. And basically, high speed trains are trains, a technology that is much older still, older than airplanes and automobiles. Of course, you are right that it will improve in efficiency and quality, but another problem is that this progress might be nullified by higher speeds. The high speed trains of today will be considered slow in ten of fifteen years time. Train manufacturers are building ever faster high speed trains.

@ Bob (#18)

Grandmothers should be in charge.

Jonas Ryberg


A great article which I as a dedicated rail traveller, I'm quite afraid of flying, can feel very emotional about. However I do belive you're a bit unfair to high-speed rail, it's not the technology per se that is the problem. As I understand the rail investments in Spain - compared to speculations and bubbles in the housing sector - have deliverd positive results.

What's happening is that national governments and the EU have not yet introduced a strategy to shift transports to sustainable alternatives. High-speed rail is just a feather in the hat while we're seeing an explosion of "unnecessary" air travel.

Taking the example of Paris-Barcelona, there's no doubt that there is a market for both day- and night-time travel options. It's just a question of marketing and priceing. And even if the night-train would have to be subsidied a bit that cost is dwarfed compared to the invesments in infrastructure.

We need a cultural change - and a political one - when looking a rail travel. The notion that we are able to travel more is mostly positive but we need to build a much more integrated and reasonable network.



Against high speed trains, you could read this:

On the occasion of the extension of the T.G.V. fast-speed railway track.
By L’Encyclopedie des Nuisances: France 1992


Good read!

Kris De Decker


@ Jonas

I partly agree with you. What you write is a summary of the second part of the article, which many people don't seem to have read: http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2013/12/high-speed-trains-are-not-sustainable.html

Maybe it's a bit confusing, but the complete article was just too long to be published on one page. I was afraid that people would not have bothered to start reading it. The first part relates my own experience, the second part is based on scientific research and investigates the modal shift between planes and trains. And if you take away the cheap planes, things start to look a whole lot better.

One objection: I doubt that high speed rail in Spain has a positive result. What happened with high speed rail is very similar to what happened in the housing sector.

One example is Barcelona. As I relate in the second part of the article, local train traffic around the city is a total mess. The irony is that many people who commute by train to Barcelona pass "La Sagrera", the new station that is being built exclusively for the high speed train. It's just one big construction site that does not seem to advance. It's a megalomaniac project that is hugely expensive and might never be finished. That money could have been invested in the local train network instead.

By the way, most of my friends, and myself, usually don't travel by high speed train in Spain. We can't afford it. My friends fly or go by car, and I undertake epic travels by low speed trains, for which I am ridiculized. In fact, RENFE has recently lowered the fares for the high speed trains because they were not able to obtain enough passengers. However, this only shifts the financial burden to the state operated company, and thus the tax payer.

Andre L.


@Kris: you are wrong.

Germany has many high-speed lines. The difference is that the Germans were already using a more high-speed apt (for high speed) electrification system 15.000V AC, so that it is easier in Germany to run trains that partially use high-speed tracks and partially improved normal tracks. They also didn't go for a complete separate branding for high-speed trains (like Trenitalia's Frecciarossa, SNCF's TGV or Renfe's AVE). 15.000V AC is also standard electrification in Switzerland. Look at this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_rail_in_Germany#List_of_high-speed_lines . Everything red and orange on that map is, for all European purposes, high-speed rail and much of blue lines are as well.

The original historical lines of Germany also had better alignment and much was reconstructed to better standards already after destruction following World War II. Spain, in contrast, didn't even use standard gauge on its tracks until it started building the first AVE Sevilla-Madrid, and alignments here pretty bad (e.g., allowing for lower speeds) than older lines in France or Italy.

In any case, there is a new threat to night trains, a fresh one: work safety regulations. Here in the Netherlands, as from Jan 1st, 2014, it will be no longer allowed for track workers to be in some dual track ROW where one track is kept online for traffic and the other disabled works. ProRail (the rail infrastructure manager) completely changed procedures, there will be less overall disruption, but far more all-night closure of whole lines for works. Partial closures where one track is kept opened are no longer allowed in Netherlands due to several incidents where workers were struck or had close calls with trains on the active track. This brings traditional lines more in tandem with the standard practice of high-speed tracks (keep service intact during the day, shut down the whole line 4h every night and do all work there at once).

Italy is said to be studying similar regulations, and so is Belgium. If the practice becomes spread, it will be the virtual end of night passenger trains (freight trains can still be re-routed over longer distances, but passenger trains lose their fixed route).

Kris De Decker



I did not express myself well. Germany has indeed high speed lines, but it is the only country with a "fully mixed model", which means that both high speed and conventional services can run on each type of infrastructure. High speed trains can use upgraded tracks while freight services use the spare capacity of high speed lines during the night. [see note 10, page 22]. Furthermore, while they have dedicated high speed tracks, you have to admit that they have very few of them at the moment. German high speed trains are also comparatively slow. These factors make HSR more affordable in Germany than in France or Spain.

About work safety regulations: so this means that the International Union of Railways can also bury its idea of high speed night trains? [see part 2 of the article]. If there is one thing interesting about high speed trains, i''s that they could also offer night services. This would allow them to compete against planes for much longer distances. (at least, if the cost difference could be solved....).

Kris De Decker


@ Bertrand (#28)

Thanks for the link. Shows clearly that the high speed train was initially openly aimed at business people travelling by (expensive) planes.

PS: The Low-tech Magazine article has been translated into French by carfree.fr: http://carfree.free.fr/index.php/2013/12/19/la-grande-vitesse-est-en-train-de-tuer-le-reseau-ferroviaire-europeen/

HSR Cynic


The notion that HSR is somehow "greener" than transport by aircraft is wholly flawed because the comparison is generally made btwn HSR and turbine-powered jets designed to fly at 40,000ft at twice the rate of speed as the HSR.

If, however, one compares one 250mph HSR carrying 380ppl with a fleet of piston-powered aircraft of comparable speed (say, a dozen Douglas DC-3s, 32 passengers each = 384ppl), and includes the cost of infrastructure & upkeep necessary to keep both systems running, air transit comes out on top - and this valuation does not include the massive advantage air transit has in terms of scalability & locational flexibility, and the awful footprint of HSR on the land compared to a network of 4,000ft landing strips.

The real question is: how has our air transit system become so clogged and centralized to make HSR a viable alternative, and what can we do to promote more decentralized, fuel efficient, lower cost flying for those who need speed, and ordinary low-tech rail for those who don't?

Kris De Decker


@ HSR Cynic

Great idea. I fully agree. The undeniable advantage of planes is that they don't need any infrastructure between point A and B. Cut their speed in half and they beat high speed rail, both in travel time and energy efficiency.


And: "Environmental assessment of passenger transportation should include infrastructure and supply chains" (PDF): http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/4/2/024008/pdf/erl9_2_024008.pdf



Thanks Kris, for this article describing exactly what I was already suspecting. I am a frequent business traveler. So frequent that I got sick of flying: the long lines at the airport, the stress at security, the cramped seats in economy class, lost luggage at the destination, long and expensive taxi rides between airport and inner-city hotel, etc. etc. So I started to take the train instead. 1st class train tickets are just as expensive as economy class plane tickets including commutes to and from the airport, even with HSRs. And I enjoy the space and the relative tranquility.

But due to the continued abolishing of night trains, the train travels are getting slower and slower. Next month, I need to go to Madrid, from Rotterdam. Until last week, that meant leaving Rotterdam at 4 pm and arriving at 9 am the morning after. Now I'll arrive in Madrid at 2 pm (5 hours later) or have to leave from Rotterdam at 10 am (6 hours earlier). Result: I loose at least half a working day.

Another example: there is no direct air connection between Amsterdam and Turin. Until last year, however, there was a direct night train from Amsterdam to Milan, from which one could take an HSR to Turin (or rent a car: it's only a 90 mins drive). Not anymore. I can take a night train from Paris, but that means leaving Amsterdam at 3 pm instead of 7 pm: loss of half a working day. Etc. etc.

Conclusion: HSRs are great, but the subsequent abolishing of the low-speed network renders the advantages of the HSR mostly useless. I stopped flying to Paris, okay, but will start flying again to other destinations to which I used to take the train. Or stop flying all together and find another, less productive and less socially useful job.

Andre L.


I'm back here to pinpoint some aspects of what is behind the "high-speed rail" and criticize the "low-tech rail" label.

What makes a typical "high-speed rail track" able to host trains circulating at speed close or above to 300 km/h? The very basic most important requirement are appropriate curve radii - you need wider curves for higher speeds, and there is no run-around on that. Yet, trains could still travel faster without being at any risk of derailment for a given curve radius, but they don't out of comfort of passengers.

The demands of curve radii can be reduced for a given speed with track superelevation and tilting trains. The tricky part about superelevation and can deficiency is that they must be optimized for a narrow set of target speed (be it a subway line optimized for 70km/h or a super-high speed rail optimized for 330km/h). So curve radii are the major drive on alignment decision for high-speed rail, and the reason by which is might need long tunnels as tracks can't follow a meandering river valley or contour smaller mountains (the upside: on these circumstances, high-speed tracks slash the total distance). Now there isn't a cut-off between high-speed tracks and "low-tech tracks", it is all about the relatively straightforward calculations using not-so-complex Physics.

Before the current age of high-speed rail construction, many countries (namely Italy, Switzerland and France) engaged on heavy construction activity on the interwar period to upgrade earlier slow speed tracks and often substitute newer much faster alignments for them, facing the same challenges as today - straighter tracks need more tunnels, earthworks and high viaducts if terrain doesn't help.

For the rest, the parameters of high-speed tracks are just a combination of measures and improvements that have been deployed over traditional rail infrastructure as well:

- grade separation and track isolation: the faster trains go, the more dangerous level crossings are for the train. Grade separating rail tracks is part of the safety program of all major European countries, no new grade crossings are built in many of them (banned by law), and many lines see the existing grade crossings replaced by under/overpasses. So it is not something exclusive of HSR.

- modern signaling that is actively based on train communication: train signaling is a huge rubric on railway cost, and the cause of most fatal rail accidents. High-speed trains cannot rely on giving information to drivers via trackside signals or alerts, hence trains need to communicate on real-time with a central data center. All countries have long-term projects of fitting the latest state-of-the-art electronic signaling systems into all trains. Switzerland and Denmark have advance plans to full complete conversion to ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) by 2017. This will make older rail tracks much more "high tech" in the process. In any case, all countries have some modern signaling system that is nothing like the low-tech mechanical wayside signs of early 19th Century.

- Smart trains - the trainset themselves (e.g., the vehicles running on rails) have become high-tech machines even if they run on lower speeds over older tracks. Part of it comes from the need for modern safety systems that prevent crashes, running into forbidden tracks, overspeeding etc. Part of it comes from the need to increase the number of trains that can run on a single track sector by having all trains relay and read real-time dynamic information on other trains and signaling commands, so that instead of a train having to block a sector based on its speed and distance required to stop, it uses as little space as safely needed based on dynamic information on other trains. This is becoming mandatory on many busy older lines, even if they see just lower traffic. Then, you have all the train improvements themselves, like on-board Wi-Fi that works even in tunnels, travel information panels, GPS-tracked pre-recorded announcements, all of it add a bit to train costs but greatly improve travel experience for anyone using it as transportation and not nostalgic ride.

Kris De Decker


Welcome back, Andre

Your comments get longer and longer, and less to the point.

Nowhere in the article or in the comments did I use the label "low-tech" trains. I was talking about low speed trains. You don't have to convince me that low speed trains can be high-tech, or that the 19th century is over. I know that.

If you want to make the point that there is no difference between high speed trains and low speed trains, then what exactly explains the large price difference between them when I want to book a ticket?



To Kris De Decker, the author:

In 1995 the “Etoile du Nord” was operated with TGV (not conventional train) using LGV North from Paris to Antoing in Belgium (next to Tournai) cutting journey time by about 3 / 4 hour.
4:19 instead of 5:05.
So Thalys saves about 2 hours, not only 1 !
You have to modify your conclusions.
Gerard Mathieu. Transport Consultant

Kris De Decker


@ Mathieu

Interesting. It would explain the contradicting information I encountered during the research.

If it is correct that the fastest travel time of the (purely low speed) Étoile du Nord was not 4h20 but 5h05 (which was also its travel time in 1971), then the Thalys is now 1h40 faster, not 1 hour. This would mean that the Thalys is 33% faster than the Étoile du Nord, not 25% as I write in the article. The number changes, but the conclusion remains the same.

However, your comment raises more questions than it answers. There is a document on the Thalys website describing the history of the train, which states that the first connection Paris-Amsterdam dates from June 2, 1996 and took 4h47. One year later, with the completion of the Belgian high speed line between the French border and Brussels, travel time came down to 4h19. https://www.thalys.com/be/nl/over-thalys/overzicht

This would mean that the first real high speed trains were half an hour slower than the fastest Étoile du Nord. And, most importantly, is their 4h19 the same as your 4h19? Or is that coincidence?

More confusion: On the French wikipedia page for the LGV Nord, it is stated that only three of four low speed trains were replaced by high speed trains from January 23, 1995. These first high speed trains were only 5 to 10 minutes faster than the Étoile du Nord. This seems to indicate that the fastest Étoile du Nord had a travel time of about 5 hours, but then where does your 4h19 fit in? The wikipedia page refers to a 2002 book called "Le Grand Livre du TGV" by Claude Soulié and Jean Tricoire.

Could I ask you where your information is coming from?

If someone has rail timetables available for the early 1990s, please join the discussion. This is the only way to resolve the matter.

And of course the question remains how we should label a train that does less than one third of its route on high speed rail (in 1995, dedicated high speed track did not reach further than Paris-Arras), and follows the old trajectory for most of the trip.

Kris De Decker


Bob Hex, Chairman of the Association of European Rail Agents (AERA), sent me a private mail which he agreed to republish here upon my request:

Good afternoon, Kris,

I thoroughly enjoyed your article, and I fully agree with your sentiments. What was a good and user-friendly international transport network, especially in the EC/EN era, has deteriorated into one which is customer unfriendly, disjointed and expensive.

I believe that the only real high speed train that was a benefit to the traveller was the democratic and successful HST diesel train that was built by British Rail and formed, and still does form, the basic intercity train in the country, the new franchised operators have not found a suitable alternative in many cases.

The UK wishes to build a HSL (High Speed Two) which will sit in splendid isolation from the rest of the network, and will not even connect directly into the HS1 to give direct train services to the continent, i.e. international travellers will have to drag their bags on the Underground to St. Pancras to pick up a Eurostar. What nonsense.

Whilst not against high speed trains in principle, they should be integrated into the conventional network and conventional trains and sleepers should not be withdrawn just to force people on to the new trains.

In the case of the FYRA debacle, the majority of the public did not want this service, but government and the railways (particularly NS) buried their heads in the sand and went ahead anyway. The resulting mess has reinstated the Benelux intercity, but I expect to hear later that they will want to try something else that the public will not want.

Many of the members of my association also sell long distance bus as very often the prices are more acceptable and nowadays not so slow as you would think.

Many of the members of my association would entirely agree with your article.

Kind regards,

Bob Hex, Chairman, Association of European Rail Agents (AERA).



@ Kris De Decker (28)

Well, this translation is in Google-french!

I am working to do a true-french translation...

Buckaroo Banzai



As an American who spent three glorious months in 1985 traveling by rail literally all over western Europe, it is depressing to read this excellent article. That rail network was robust, extensive, and unbelievably affordable. In Italy, the fares were so absurdly low it seemed like they almost paid YOU to ride their trains. One could wake up in the morning in a European city of almost any size, throw a dart at a map, consult the Thomas Cook European Timetable, and within a few hours, be on a train to that destination that would be reasonably direct and reasonably priced. And if you had a Eurail pass, as I did for two of those months, it was even more affordable.

Just a crying shame that they have so badly undermined that wonderful network. And to add insult to injury, assuming European politics works anything like American politics, I'm sure a lot of politicians, bureaucrats, unions, and private sector contractors got rich at the public's expense as well.

Peter Baksa


"The majority of Europeans are pushed into cars, coaches and low-cost airplanes"

Ok, but aren't holiday trips unsustainable de facto? Allowing more people to travel less unsustainably is good? Are the operators or the people to be blamed?

Jonas Ryberg


As a sad coincidence, just after I wrote here last time our national railway company SJ announced the closure of night-trains between Malmö and the capital Stockholm on 31 March next year. However, there has been a remarkable reaction to it from politicians, urban planners and even a few CEOs of large companies coming out against it. Hopefully the trains will remain if pressure is kept up over the next months!

Otherwise I just wanted to say that I agree with Bob Hex entirely. Rail integration urgently needed and despite all the talk we're heading in the wrong direction!

Also, there must be a political decision to support reasonable fares. Governments must atleast own parts of rail companies and make sure that citizens of all classes can afford to travel.



One point missing in the discussion is frequency of service. For a leisure traveller one train per day per direction might be all right. But for a business traveler several connections per days are needed. In Switzerland intercity trains run every 30 Min on the busy routes. And this headways need to be cut to 20 or 15 Minutes to be competetive with door to door travel time and flexibility of cars. Now we have freight, slow commuter fast commuter, interregio intercity and eurocity on the same track.
All those trains have different speeds. I lose ten minutes every day because my commuter train needs to wait to let an intercity train pass. There are more passengers in the commuter train. There are 1200 passengers in the train which lose 10 in every day makes 12000min =200h = 8.334d If a faster train is late all lower class trains are also late. At some point it is inevitable to build new tracks. In many cases it is not possible to add two more tracks to the same ROW. And since all the stations for the slower trains are already in place and integrated with other public transport it makes sense to build the new tracks for the faster trains. In this case only the tracks need to be build an no stations. Also by building the tracks for high speed trains allows to use steeper inclines. This saves money. Axle load is also lower on dedicated high speed tracks further saving money. Also HSR lines have very few turnouts which are very expensive.
Building a high speed train line allows the slower trains to run faster and more often. I would almost never use a high speed train passing my hometown, but i would welcome it as my daily commute would become faster.

Kris De Decker


@ Matthias (#45)

Some aspects of high speed rail construction may be cheaper than normal rail construction, but that does not take away the fact that everything taken together, it is more expensive. See second part of article, note 10. As for building new lines: all true, but why do those fast trains on those fast tracks have to surpass a speed of 200 km/h?

@ Jonas (#44)

Sad news. I have hope that the protest can be effective, because it concerns a domestic connection. In the case of the night train between Paris and Barcelona, this was almost impossible because the train was used mainly by two nationalities speaking two different languages.

@ Peter (#43)

That's a fundamental question, which I would like to deal with in a forthcoming article. Travel broadens the mind, and people have been travelling long distances for centuries. But the modern concept of "holidays" is a strange beast. It is more an escape from a sick society than a way of travel. "Holidays" and planes go together, as the aim is to get somewhere far away as fast as possible. Low speed trains, on the other hand, invite travel. The experience starts when you leave, not when you arrive. Slowing down long distance travel times will reduce long distance transportation. But we could still travel much faster than people could for most of history. We need to find a sustainable compromise.

@ Buckaroo (#42)

Eurail, and InterRail (which is the same for European citizens), are not what they used to be. These days, you have to pay extra fees for night trains (and high speed trains). It is still often the cheapest option when you want to travel long distances, at least when you are prepared to travel slowly. But the advance of high speed trains, and the abolition of the slower connections, will make it less and less interesting. I am afraid it will eventually disappear.

@ Bertrand (#41)

Great, thanks! Send us the link when it's ready.



Why should speed be limited to 200km/h. Actually there is an arbitrary limit of 250km/h. If the operating speed is higher trains need to fulfill higher requirements and cost much more. So DB ordered Trains for 249km/h. This would the most cost effective solution. If the topography allows line could build the tracks for much higher speeds.

The point is speed doesn't matter but fur a HSR railway there must be some minumum traffic. It makes no sense to build a new double tracked railway line and then run only one train per direction per hour. If there is almost no traffic the line will lose money regardless if its designed for 100km/h or 300km/h.

If there is enough demand then a faster train can save money. Train crews are paid by working hours not by the kilometers they cover. Trainsets also have high fixed cost. So the faster the train runs the more passenger kilometers it can produce for the same fixed cost.

IMHO for HSR there should be one train every thirty min better fifteen or ten minutes. Longer waiting time doesn't make sense as time is lost when transferring. Door to door traveling time will be better if there is a train with 200km/h topspeed every 15 min than a train with 300kmh every hour.

So at the end the HSR networks need to operate like a subway just with longer distances and higher speeds. The Japanese Shinkansen does so and is a huge success and profitable. Paris-Lyon is also profitable as there is enough demand.

But the time of named trains and sleeping cars is over. They are just to expensive to operate and cannot compete with low cost airlines. And they are very inflexible running only once a day. They are not suitable for business travellers. So they have a small niche for leisure travel.

HSR Cynic


Another fallacy when comparing HSR to aviation: security & boarding procedures.

Aviation is saddled with a draconian security apparatus that rail has thus far managed to avoid, and running the gauntlet of this security penalizes air in comparison.

If we can admit that most of this security springs from the fear of an airplane falling from the sky, rather than rational risk assessment, its fair to ask: why aren't HSR queues subject to the same drill? Or, conversely, if HSR doesn't need that level of security, why does aviation?

The point here is to question the systemic biases that have resulted in HSR being a viable alternative to aircraft that operate in the same speed regimen - it certainly isn't a selection based on physics, economy, or utility.

Rather, HSR is an extraordinarily expensive and clunky admission of defeat in the face of political pressures that have hamstrung aviation from keeping its robust & utilitarian system of regional flights.

That HSR plays neatly into patronage schemes of the land-holding political class seems plain, and a giant step backwards in terms of reducing our footprint on the planet - all that electricity, high-precision equipment and constant maintenance is not carbon neutral...



For the HSR infra vs. airplane infra, I'm skeptical that airports are particularly low-footprint infrastructure. According to http://www.flychicago.com/OHARE/EN/ABOUTUS/FACTS/Pages/Facility-Data.aspx, Chicago O'Hare "resides on over 7,000 acres" of land, which allowing for a 20 m ROW is something like 1,400 km of track, or nearly New York to St. Louis. Clearly much depends on the width of your ROW; and most airports aren't this big (Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, which is currently busier than O'Hare, reports an area of just 4,700 acres, or 1,902 Ha). Additionally, airports have the relative luxury of having all of their land in a fairly consistent topography. But there are 381 Primary Airports in the US and its territories (airports having more than 10,000 emplanements per year), besides the rest of the world, and all of the runways, taxiways, hangars, passenger terminals, passenger terminal trains, cargo terminals, control infrastructure, emergency vehicle garages, emergency vehicle practice areas, parking lots, parking lots, and parking lots are maintenance sinks. And since jet fuel does not spring from the ground as a boon from Boreas, there's importation to do, by train and truck and barge.

But HSR Cynic isn't talking about the state of airports as they are, but rather as HSR Cynic wants them to be. Of course, DC-3s are still in service, especially in places where unimproved facilities are the norm; but in general, those are not their home bases, or places where they refuel. It's probably not politics, after all, that favors O'Hare (and Midway) versus a network of grass fields across the Lake Michigan shore, but the efficiencies of shipping JetA and avgas to one facility; and even though the routes are, in theory, as scalable as the population centers need them to be, in practice they are limited by the comparative lack of scalability of the destination facilities.

Alan Witton


I've had a few bad experiences myself recently with so-called high-speed trains. e.g. on the Brussels - Koln corridor there used to be an hourly Inter-City trains available without surcharge. Now there are German ICE and Franco-Belgian Thalys trains sharing the high-speed route but with totally different pricing structures, so the ICE charges only an €5 supplement as for German domestic trains, but the Thalys has a global pricing structure and does not accept tickets issued for the ICE - including Inter-Rail. And the high-speed line is much less attractive as a route than the historic line, as it burrows under the interesting bits in the Ardennes instead of wending (relatively slowly) around them!

I've also had my bellyful of the progressive run-down of the Inter-City route between Brussels and Amsterdam. I don't know the full ins and outs of the FYRA debacle, but I gather the railways bought a new fleet of high-speed trains, paid for them, then tested them and found they were unsafe at any speed! So back to the old Inter-City trainsets with slightly newer locos. Now the Netherlands and Belgium railways never used to score highly in the speed stakes, but NS at least had a proud record as one of the safest and most reliable railways in Europe. In my last six trips between Brussels and stations in Holland, I have experienced one loco failure (sorry, wait for next train an hour later), one bridge problem (Amsterdam-bound train diverted to Utrecht late at night, passengers decanted into buses then two local trains to reach Den Haag) and of course the after-effects of the FYRA problems (my Eurostar missed the Inter-City by five minutes, so travel on to Den Haag was possible only by a succession of local trains). Progress? Hah!

All of these problems (including the late-running Eurostar which was delayed believe it or not by a broken rail in the Tunnel) could have been solved relatively simply by a willingness to regard the lower-speed lines as integral parts of a European railway network. But no, it seems. Those of us who are constitutionally averse to paying supplements for what used to be surcharge-free travel, are it seems to be treated like dirt and transported accordingly. I could go on, but won't.



This is excellent information, but you show that high-speed rail is killing rail travel for certain classes of passengers, not for everyone. To really see what is going on, we need a time series of ridership data by country.

Eurostat has modal shares by country for rail, bus, and highway but not air. These data show rail's share of travel has declined since 1990 in Spain and Italy, but grown in France and Germany. It has grown in Belgium but remained flat in the Netherlands. So the effects of high-speed rail appears to be a mixed bag. However, without air numbers, we can't really be sure.

Andre L.


@Alan Witton (50)

The V250 debacle is more about a train manufacturer (Ansaldo Breda) who screwed up big time on project management. They designed a bad train, one which HSA (the NS-SNCB-KLM joint-venture) hat bet on the drawing board. Buying rolling stock isn't yet in production for future orders is a very common process, from subways and trams to heavy trains of all speeds.

The infrastructure part of the HSL-4/Zuid project was completed with just an 8 month delay (not much for rail infrastructure projects). The lines are used by domestic train services running at 160km/h and in the future at 200km/h (from 2018 onward I think). The old lines around the high-speed line in Netherlands are congested and something new to expand capacity had to be built. The new line cut the travel time between Schiphol and Rotterdam from 48 to 19 minutes only, while also freeing up space on the old line for regional trains calling at all stations.

I dismiss your complaint about the line routing on the Ardennes as having no valid grounds. As long as we are discussing transportation as getting from A to B, it is irrelevant whether a line goes through scenic areas or deep tunnels. Now you can have touristic lines whose aim is to entertain passengers, that is another different animal, but as for transportation between Liège and Aachen, the landscape between both stations is totally irrelevant.

Take a look at the Swiss: they same some very long Alpine tunnels, including a 56km-long one in construction, meant for transporting people quickly across the Alps (which are extremely beautiful year-round). They also also leisure railways up through/to the mountains with panoramic cars and other services where people can have a very nice leisure experience. Long "drab" tunnels hasn't precluded the Swiss from using their railways on a higher share of km-passenger than any other country in Western Europe.


@antiplanner (51)

The Spanish rail network was in decay and on a bad state in 1990. Buses had a large market-share over there compared to other Western European countries. What happened in Spain is not that train lost costumers (it didn't), but a never-seen-in-Europe-before program of highway construction coupled with rapid raising of household income around that time in the country, which allowed many more people the money and infrastructure to use cars.

Alan Witton


Whether landscape is irrelevant is open to debate. But if the European rail network is supposed to be serving a full range of passenger and freight traffic, with passengers including business travellers, tourists and the not-so-well-off, then at least one of those sub-groups would appreciate a bit of scenery here and there! And the not-so-well-off would probably have to think long and hard before paying the extra to travel on a high speed train. Turning off at least two segments of your potential market doesn't seem to me to be a sound marketing strategy.

Israel Walker


One of the simplest proposals to make intercity rail profitable is to simply lay HR55 rail down a single lane of an existing 4 lane road. Infrastructure cost is incredibly low because the grade and bed are already built. Further, it reduced road capacity by 50% causing congestion which makes passenger rail more attractive. Win/win, it is hated by automotive lobbyists who claim trams will cause the highways to run with blood...blah, blah, blah etc. Apparently destroying an affordable competing capacity to make more money only works when you are the owner of the more affordable competing capacity.

Though, I will say a simple principle can replace your good work on this: technological solutions to social problems aren't. Either they aren't solutions or they weren't technological problems.

Etienne Bayenet


Thank you for the article, I really enjoyed it. But I believe that the real killer is the road. Cheap airline also manage new created needs because nobody traveled from Luxembourg to Rome for 3 days 10 years ago, which is now common. The car is just so cheap. When friends go back to
Portugal, they took the the bus, and now the car or the plane, I believe that they never used the train.
I usually go back to Switzerland by car and you see on the highway people traveling long distance in cars like a Renault Twingo. This year, I took the train, which I did regularly between 1990 and 1995. The kids really loved it and I arrived much more relaxed. The price was ok because my wife didn't come along - kids almost didn't pay anything - and it's ok because somebody was waiting for us at the train station. The comfort was similar but I saved like 2 hours on the trip compared to 1990,this without using a high speed train. Just like you say, 200 km/hour is more than enough. There is another big difference: in 1990, only one train change was needed; this year, I had to change 3 times, but in Switzerland, this is not an issue and kids loved to try different cars. The other main difference is that - if I am right - there are now just 2 good trains a day between Luxembourg and Basel. There use to be much more and a night train going from Brussels to Milano.

Nomen Nescio


Nice to see it written out. A technical point: put the comments at page 2 and not page 1. Secondly: there's enough material to do a second article on this subject.

Some thoughts:

* using the de facto monopoly on public transport planning in Europe (Hafas) when I try to plan a trip from Paris to Brussels excluding trains with a surplus I have to travel via Epemay, Longuyon, Longwy, Luxembourg, Arlon, Libramont, Namur, Mons, and finally arrive in Brussels South. Only 21 hours 19 minutes! Obviously, one could travel via Lille or use local buses as you describe. Granted, part of the information in that system is simply wrong, can always happen, but seen how often such things happen and the fact that it's usually not possible to do any queries that exclude expensive trains through the 'front door' websites of companies like SNCB and SNCF, tells us enough. They control the information and by doing so can make their Thalys and similar products more lucrative. [http://hafas.bene-system.com/bin/query.exe/en?ld=atr&L=profi]

* probably blasphemy on this site but I must confess. In 2013, I fell twice for the trap. After having spend 2 or 3 evenings trying to figure out how to travel to a village in Catalonia, being really flexible from my starting city (Strasbourg, Brussels, Frankfurt, Cologne, Nüremberg, Amsterdam) I gave up and bought a plane ticket. Took me 15 minutes to compare prices, check where I had to change or direct flights and be done with it. I paid a bit under 1/2 of the train price. Another time was within Germany. Even with a Bahncard 25 and trying to get a ticket 6 weeks upfront it was again twice as expensive and would have taken 3 hours more, including commuting to the airports.

* International rail traffic is supposedly to be open for the market. Cabbotage isn't always possible. It's next to non-existent. Given how rail infrastructure bodies are still having close ties with the national operators it's not much of a surprise.

* Buses. In Germany they're booming since DB lost it's monopoly a year or two ago on inter-city travel. I don't know what will happen. Half a year ago I thought that currently trains are only affordable for the bourgeoisie and the proletariats preferred means of transport is the areoplane but this might change a bit, again. I'm curious how those different means of semi public transport will diverge or develop.

* Across Europe there are many projects to better connect the (not so) local airports with the main city nearby. Often with rail. This is not always high-speed rail like between Köln and Frankfurt, but also light rail like in Hamburg (5 years anniversary). The net effect is that air traffic gets even more attractive. Say from Bonn there are now 3 main airports reachable within an hour.

Stefan A.


Thanks for a very interesting and insightful article. It‘s quite paradoxical to think that the EU keeps blabbing on about mobility in euroregion while regional train connections (e.g. Jeumont) are being dismantled. I never understood how a trip from Mons (be) to Valenciennes (fr) takes 2h35,(according to the NMBS/SNCB, I've never undertaken the trip myself) while there is a direct track between these two regional cities. The connections on the other side of the country between the cities that make up the Meuse_Rhine euroregion aren‘t much better. The Maastricht, Brussels train is the only decent train, even though the traveling time is quite long from Maastricht (nl) to Liège (be). The traditional Liège-Aachen (de) connection is as brisk as a snail carrying some heavy shopping. The connection Maastricht-Aachen is inexistent (not because of a lack of demand), even though there is a line running from Visé (be) (10km south of Maastricht) to Aachen (granted, it is a freight line), which could be used to that effect, pending a little bit of ambition and organisation (unless I‘m missing some important point). All this to say that the EU is more concerned about linking big cities with one another while neglecting regions, which is regrettable considering that many of these regions form the backbone of the EU economy and could really benefit from better interconnections.
To this point I would like to add that the arrival of the high speed network coincides with the liberalisation of rail (creating a shift towards profit driven services - this is not to say that train should run on a deficit, but there has been a shift from public service to product -). I would have liked to have your take on that, since, to me, the current transport situation is linked to the market approach (with various hidden subsidies of course). To my mind, in this context, low costs airlines would have undermined trains anyway. The prices proposed by some carriers are simply dirt cheap.
I would also be interested to see some absolute numbers, because I am under the impression (possibly the wrong impression) that the total amount of travellers has increased. For train, I know this to be true, at least in Belgium. But, also, judging by the significant enlargements made to road infrastructure across Europe, I believe there to be an overall growth. This brings me to the following point: if indeed there is growth, it seems to me legitimate to build new infrastructure and a high speed network to deal with the growing demand. Albeit, if this really is the case, I see no reason to dismantle traditional lines and night services. In this context, a comparison with the system in Japan - I only know it‘s supposed to be really good - would be nice.
If I may be so bold as to suggest a topic for a future article, I would be very interested in learning more and reading your opinion about rolling highways, combined transport and the Eurocarex project. I've often wondered why there were not more freight trains carrying lorries. To my mind, this would make a lot a sense and save time and possibly money for long distance freight companies; especially for traffic towards countries where heavy traffic is banned during the week-end, such as Germany.
Kind regards.

Etienne Bayenet


Here is a link about truck transport on train with some data from 2011. This is a booming business. If I'm right, they travel 7 days a week with more than one train a day.


The company doing Luxembourg/Spain is

Best regards,


Andre L.


@Israel Walker (54): you are talking completely non-sense. Highway specs, the best ones, call for 350m curve radii and 55/1000 gradient for design speeds of 130km/h. You can't possible run trains on those alignments unless you go into rack railway territory running at no more than 50km/h.

Alex Macfie


"Flying has become so cheap in Europe that it's now cheaper to live in Barcelona and commute by plane each day, than to live and work in London. [7]" except that it's hardly practical; this relies on the one available flight each morning and evening running to plan, and on being able to get the cheapest ticket for each trip each day (no season tickets on low-cost airlines!). That chap's figures also assume that the person is working near where the coach from Stanstead Airport terminates in central London and so does not need a Zone 1–2 Travelcard. Although it's worth noting as an example of how absurdly cheap low-cost airlines have become, there are too many potential points of failure for a daily Ryanair commute between (say) Barcelona and London to be doable in the real world.



Since it hasn't been mentioned yet, I'd like to point out that the Heritage Foundation made a similar critique of high-speed rail as a costly luxury.


Kris De Decker


Some updates.

The French high speed trains are losing customers because of high ticket prices & both French and German railways replace trains by buses: http://www.notechmagazine.com/2014/02/buses-instead-of-trains.html

The article was translated in German: http://www.zukunft-mobilitaet.net/51192/analyse/hochgeschwindigkeitszuege-wirkung-fernverkehr-wirtschaftlicher-nutzen/



"Whilst not against high speed trains in principle, they should be integrated into the conventional network and conventional trains and sleepers should not be withdrawn just to force people on to the new trains. "

Certainly. This is exactly what Germany did. Seems that the ICE routes are well appreciated. And make no mistake, there are lots and lots of them -- more track-miles than France.

If you pay more attention, you'll see that the real problem is government subsidies of roads. This makes buses appear cheaper to operate (which they aren't).

Mark Roest


A couple of ideas:
Use bi-directional monorail with ultra-light-weight (but high strength) coaches in highway medians, and anywhere else that high- or medium-density transit is needed. It would be low cost and take short radius turns easily at high speed.

Rail: Again, use very light-weight, streamlined coaches, with relatively close headways on shorter trains, instead of the heavy vehicles we use today; follow the author's suggestion of slightly slower speeds, like 200 km/hr or less.

Buses: Again, use (the same) very light-weight, streamlined coaches as feeders to the fixed-line monorail and rail. It's like the veins on a leaf.

Use 'bulding-integrated-solar' panels for the roofs of all the vehicles, and for sun-shades above them on fixed guideways. Power them with this.

Check out Gizmag for the increasingly frequent stories about designs for electric-motor aircraft. The battery technology will probably be ready to do this safely (three times the performance, with no fires or explosions) in 5 years. As we switch from fossil and nuclear to renewable energy sources and battery storage, we will be amortizing the equipment, and then running on virtually free energy. So air travel will no longer be severely (if at all) damaging to the environment. Also, as fuel is one of the dominant costs of air travel, the overall costs will be even less than now.

Kris De Decker


The Back on Track Campaign by the World Carfree Network maintains a page with recent changes to international rail connections in Europe:


Guy coste


This article stoke a cord for me, as i have travelled by rail on my own (that is without my parents) since 1959.
Sure, trains of today are most of the time much better than the brittish antics of the early sixties, but the experience of travelling has been destroyed by, among lots of other things, compulsory seat booking on most trains (except on commuter lines).
When i travelled from Sweden to Montélimar (in the Rhône valley) i could choose between boarding the Nord-Express in the evening in Stockholm and changing train (and station) in Paris the next day, or travel through Swizerland to get a glimpse of some real mountains. The trip through Paris took some 30 hours.
Nowadays that trail is destroyed, because connections are no longer garanteed and you have to wait hours between two high speed trains in places like Hambourg, Cologne or Copenhagen. The time gain from higher speed disappears while waiting on cold windy platforms. Besides, how much fun is it to have to hoard one's luggage around and try and find somewhere to stay for a couple of hours in the middle of the night in Hamburg? I could of course make it to St Pauli (like the danish lorry driver with whom i once hitch hiked, who spent the compulsory pause with a lady while i got nervous waiting, my bag beeing locked in the lorry) but buying sex is really not my cup of tea.

I had not travelled "home" to see mum by train for years - if not decades - when i decided to get home to Uppsala from Cluse (Savoie) by train through Berlin. Alas, when in Berlin - a really pleasant city in the summer - i discovered that the service via Sassnitz to Malmö was discontinued, just as the connection via Rostock. So i had to travel through Hamburg to get to Copenhagen, in over-crowded trains during parts of the trip. Needless to say that my fare was somewhere about double what i would have had to pay for a plane ticket from Geneva to Arlanda (Stockholm). After a couple of nights i Copenhagen i took a bus (direct, mind you!) to Uppsala to compensate for my railway excesses.
So, unfornately, beeing retired i won't travel again to my "home" village by rail, unless i find a winning lottery- ticket on the street.

The other side of the rail debate is population density and route flows. Building a HSL in the wildernes makes no sense but when the Paris-Lyon line got built it simply was a question of much needed extra capacity and avoiding crowded valleys. The problem remains in the Rhône valley, where 2 tracks on the right bank and 2 on the left bank are saturated even though the LGV-line has been extended south of Lyon. In many places in Europe there is a severe lack of tracks and of land on which to build additional ones. New freight-lines or LGVs are options.
In a scarsly populated country like Sweden some lobby for a HSL between Stockholm and Gothemburg because more capacity is needed anyway, but objectors point out that the HS connection between Stockholm and Arlanda (a PPP) is anything but a financial success story.



What a great article! This makes a lot of very interesting contrarian points about high speed rail. I think that this is the exact sort of article that Slate.com and The Atlantic magazine publish, you are a great writer.

However, while you make an exciting contrarian argument, if I were rebut you, I would explore these points:

-The old low speed train lines, the overnight trains, and the current regional train lines were and are loss leaders for national governments. They were/are subsidized systems where ticket revenues collected are substantially less than operating costs, operated as part of a social policy to provide affordable transport. The new high speed lines have higher ticket prices, yes, but they are also profitable or at least cover more than 100% of their operating costs (capital costs might be another story).

-The old non-high-speed lines that you mention such as Étoile du Nord surely didn't get slower purely out of protection for the new high speed lines. Surely the reason that riding those lines takes longer now is because they provide more local service and/or carry more freight than they used to. If you were really doing an academic-quality examination of your theory that high speed rails may actually increase pollution by converting people from rail travellers to air travelers, you would have to see how much carbon was abated by providing more local service and more freight capacity that abates the use of personal cars for local transport and lorries/trucks for freight.

-You complain that the Thalys only saves an hour at 3h20m versus the fastest the non-high-speed train was able to achieve, but you had just finished recounting how the non-high-speed train had gotten faster and faster over the decades. If Thalys takes 3:20 to do Paris-Amsterdam that is actually on the very slow end of high speed rail at around 100mph average including stops. I believe that there are some TGV lines that average over 170mph including stops. As the line develops it should get faster, with times under 2h30m very achievable, in comparison to the old Étoile du Nord line where they were operating at about the limit what would ever be possible.

-You claim anecdotally that higher rail fares are converting people into air travelers, but I'm pretty sure that isn't actually the case statistically. I haven't seen these exact statistics but I have seen statistics showing that on almost every high speed rail route less than 4 hours in duration, rail has over half of the rail/air market share and sometimes much more like 80% to 90%. I doubt that high speed rail has caused rail to lose any market share vs air.

-Finally, it has to be said that the high speed rail developers didn't envision your route Barcelona-Amsterdam when they designed the lines or the fare schemes. Their logic goes something like, "in order to justify the cost of high speed rail development we have to be able to charge many of our passengers, the ones we price discriminate as business travelers, fares that compare with what they pay with airlines. We are only going to be able to do this on routes up to about 4 hours long because most business travelers will only take train rides of up to 3 or 4 hours duration before they will strongly prefer flying." Therefore they optimize routes and fares around the travel patterns of the travelers that are providing the vast majority of their revenue. Wouldn't it only cost you half as much to only travel Barcelona-Paris or only Paris-Amsterdam by rail? I doubt that airfares on those shorter routes are half of what they are for the longer Barcelona-Paris route. In fact, they could be about the same or even more than for the Barcelona-Amsterdam route since they are specialty flights and connection flights since most locals would just take the train.



to: Andre L.
This manpower saving devices could be used on normal speed railways too. But problem is that high sped trains have less stops. In my country currently some groups try to persuade government for construction of brand new high speed railway, but with just three stations between final stations. Even if this two cities are connected by two railways, one constructed for 130-160kmph second around 100-120kmph. Currently on faster (but 50km longer) exist dense traffic of Eurocity trains and national speed trains with connections on local trains, those trains are widely used.

I think for long distances is suitable speed around 120-160kmph, this is faster than some highways and still slow enough for traditional railways without fences (many High speed railways need fences for protection from animals)

And traction system of electric railway is another problem, AC system voltage is OK, 15kV 16,7Hz or 25kV/50Hz can deliver enough power with smaller conductors, but DC systems with maximum at 3kV are not able of such performance, and additionally using of more than two system in Europe made multi-system locomotives expensive. And of course best is using of only one system.



Hi, I am putting up a petition in avaaz.org to keep the night trains. I am just trying to do something. I wonder if you would like to sign it? and distribute it to your friends.

Dr CK Connolly


Perhaps you should look to the maligned british railways for a solution. on the east coast trains do run half hourly at 200 km per hour on old tracks with city centre stations for a fares from about 50 euro for 300km. With a railcard I am paying less than that for my next first class trip to London. No wonder demand is ever increasing



I don't understand the problem. There is always the alternative for slow trains. In fact all trains are slow in Europe. I mean look at Japan , i went with the Shinkansen. Now that is speed and service at its best, and to be honest the price is worth it, because you really travel a long distance with it, and if you want to go cheap , there's always the older slower railways. It's 2015 almost, and i can feel your pain. Because the slow speeds of the so called high speed trains are not worth the price you are travelling with.



> Erquelinnes station (1852-2012). Don't forget your walking shoes

Or don't forget your folding bike :-)

Here's one way how to get from Paris to Amsterdam on regional trains (ie. non-Thalys high-speed train; I checked for a Monday):

Paris 06h04 Amiens 07h21
Amiens 07h38 Lille-Flandres 08h58
Lille-Europe 09h33 Amsterdam 14h04




In worst case scenario train operating on 100-120kmph will take fuel in price around 850€/hour, If we will count with diesel it will take like 350kg/100km, 500€/hour but only with motor running on full load whole time. And I am sure that railway don't pay normal prices but much lower for oil, coal or electricity.

Both systems have to be operated in way that they should be complementary. My country was once "railway land," every small village had it's railway station, my town have still four, three operated in seasonal mode, we even had TV cartoons about locomotives before Thomas the tank engine was first broadcasted. Instead of reconstruction railways are closed and replaced by rubber-wheel buses. And only because of ideological reasons and bribes.

System of mass transport is not good in EU nor in USA. Refusing competition on railway but enable it on roads together with really slow speed (under 60kmph!) and closing lines will within few decades totally destroy system and only like ten will (hope this will not happened) be operated. Stupidity.



Your articles should have a date on them.



Re: (74) "Your articles should have a date on them."
Date is embedded in the url, right after the low tech magazine dot com.

Somewhere back up the line of comments, and I can't find it right now, they are all starting to blend together, is one about building high speed rail in median of 4 lane highway.
Where I live in middle of Missouri along I-70, the landscape prevents that, grades are too steep and curves are too sharp for high speed rail. some of the grades are too sharp for anything using only adhesion traction. I don't have numbers to relate, but come out here and look at it, and you will see, some grades are 5 percent or better.
The median is rather narrow, placing a high speed train in it will bring the slipstream of a train running NASCAR speeds to within 15 feet of your Chevy Volt or empty semitrailer.

kris de decker


@ 74

The article was published December 16, 2013 (find the date just above the comments)

Things have gotten much worse in the meantime (we're now February 2016). The German and French railways have cancelled all their nighttrains, making my travels between north and south europe all but impossible.

High operating costs are said to be the reason, but the real financial disaster is the high speed rail network, say the Court of Audit in both France and Spain:

Contabilidad financiera y social de la alta velocidad en España (august 2015): http://documentos.fedea.net/pubs/eee/eee2015-08.pdf

La grande vitesse ferroviaire: un modèle porté au-delâ de sa pertinence (october 2014): https://www.ccomptes.fr/Actualites/Archives/La-grande-vitesse-ferroviaire-un-modele-porte-au-dela-de-sa-pertinence

Like the USA, Europe might end up with just two long-distance transport options, of which the external costs are not taken into account: cars and planes. I will be forced to cycle.

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