May 26, 2011


California’s High-Speed Rail Won’t Go Nowhere: German high-speed trains started in the provinces, too, but now have a fast, efficient and popular system crisscrossing the nation. (Michael Scott Moore, 5/25/11, Miller McCune)

European high-speed rail, of course, wasn’t built overnight; in fact the lines took decades to develop. The German system nominally began in the 1980s, with a stretch of track between the international metropolises of Hamm and Gütersloh, where an experimental train hit a record-setting speed of 197 mph in 1985.

The stretch of land in question was a provincial part of the industrial region northeast of Cologne, in what was then West Germany. But the fully loaded passenger trips were just showcase rides, and because of politics and bureaucratic hassles, German high-speed rail trundled embarrassingly behind the French TGV until the ’90s, when the fall of communism opened longer, more logical routes between east and west.

Now one of the best-used lines runs from Berlin to Cologne. It passes over the Hamm-Gütersloh stretch, which is no longer the most modern leg of the German system. It veers through a few medium-sized cities, just as the California train might veer to Palmdale; it has to slow near the cities for local traffic. But at regular intervals the Deutsche Bahn system can let its fast trains sprint, and several times per day, an InterCity-Express runs from Berlin to Cologne — about 260 miles — in a cool 4.5 hours.

This is nowhere near cutting-edge speed. Germans grumble that their trains can move faster. But it does the job: Airport check-in lines, security lines, luggage lines and the sheer inconvenience of airport locations make a competing one-hour plane journey add up to three or four hours of travel.

The difference isn’t a matter of half an hour more or less; the difference is that most of the travel time, on a train, belongs to the passenger. You can do real work in four hours while your life isn’t being wasted in airport cattleyards.

Posted by at May 26, 2011 6:00 AM

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