By Andrew Selden

We were in France and Switzerland in early June, and used the railways to get around. These were our observations, everything is different in Europe, except the track gauge (and we did see some meter gauge main line in Switzerland). The railroads don’t go everywhere, but where they do go, they go frequently and run very fast. They also have some minor timekeeping issues, but when they occur, they are unusual and the subject of intense apologies from employees. The minimum “legal” connecting time between SBB trains in Switzerland is still 2 minutes.

It is still the case, too, that even in Europe, trips over 500 miles are uncommon and very difficult to do in a day. Most Europeans who have to travel those distances, fly or drive. We don’t have any data on this, but we would be surprised to learn that the average trip length exceeded 300 miles, or that rail’s market share for trips in the 300 to 600-mile segment exceeded 5%. (On Amtrak’s western long hauls, the average trip exceeds 700 miles, and rail’s market share in the corridors it serves regularly exceed 5%.)

We landed at CDG airport in Paris, and took two RER suburban routes to get to St. Lazare station for our train to Normandy. CDG has its own train station, with RER trains into the City, and TGV service to just about everywhere else in France. RER trains are perhaps most like MetroNorth in New York – more than an urban subway, less than intercity. One way fare was 10 Euros (taxi fare: about 80 Euros), but the very long walks between trains and to the St. Lazare platforms with heavy luggage were a challenge. Signage was weak, but uniformed platform employees were helpful with directions. Having a basic sense of railroad operations also helped. The ATMs wouldn’t take my brand-new, chip-embedded Visa card,so I had to add a long wait in a hot queue to buy my ticket from an agent.

St. Lazare is one of a half dozen major train stations in Paris. It has 27 tracks, most for longer commuter routes, and 6 for trains to Normandy. Huge boards, and dispersed screens, show all departures, with track assignments posted a few minutes before departure, always producing a minor stampede. Unlike in the UK, these trains have and the signs show train numbers. Mine, #3307 to Cherbourg, is spotted 35 minutes late due to “maintenance.” Hmmm. The French announcements are not helpful, but a stranger helpfully translates the key info for me. (Forget all the stories about “nasty Parisians” – everyone I dealt with couldn’t have been nicer.) My intercity travel was all electronically ticketed from the US, but timetables and route maps were very hard to find.

The train (I rode to Bayeux) was one electric locomotive and 10 cars, two F and 8 Standard class, with no amenities. Seats in F are all 1×2 randomly facing forward or back. All French trains run left-handed. This one promptly got up to about 100 MPH after getting out of central Paris. The ride – across country that looks like central Wisconsin – went by quickly. The track was flawless. The return trip, four days later, was equally uneventful. These trains run every two hours on this line.

After a day in Paris, we went on to Lucerne, Switzerland. This time, we used a newer double-deck (“duplex”) TGV as far as Basel (the TGV goes on to Zurich), and a Swiss SBB Regional, Basel-Lucerne. The TGV leaves from Gare de Lyon, which has three different halls, each with 12 to 28 tracks, and each about the size of Chicago Union Station. It is a happening place on a weekday morning. Signage here is excellent, including huge boards with departure info. Many different varieties of train come and go constantly. Ours pulls in about 25 minutes before departure, and is immediately mobbed. These duplex TGVs can accommodate up to 1500 passengers and ours seems to be well over half full. These run on a regular basis on this route (but not hourly) throughout the day. At the appointed time – to the second – the conductor’s whistle sends the train gliding silently out of the station.

We leave Paris on conventional track at conventional speed, which we guessed at 65-75 MPH. Once outside the city, we are switched imperceptibly (how do they surface their switches so perfectly?) onto TGV track, and quickly accelerate to between 150-185 MPH. At speeds above about 225 KPH, a screen in the car displays the speed in kilometers/hour. The track climbs grades like on a US Interstate, and one long grade knocks down our speed by 40 KPH, which we immediately recover after the line levels out. The trip to Basel takes about three hours. We run for 55 minutes or so at 180, then make a sweeping curve to the east off the central plain of France and leave TGV track for a long climb at 65-75 MPH up to Dijon. Leaving Dijon for the (unmarked) Swiss border, the TGV accelerates again, but this time reaches 318 KPH, which we loosely convert to 220 MPH, and sustains that for 25 minutes. You cover a lot of ground in a very short period at 220 MPH. Soon, we are slowing for Basel, where we have a half-hour connection to a Swiss Regional train.

Along the way, also leaving Dijon, SNCF serves us a very nice cold lunch tray at our seats, with wine and a choice of three entrees.

In Switzerland, almost every line is electrified, and every time you look, there is a junction with another main line.

The trains in Switzerland are so frequent and go so many places that our tickets on the last segment are unreserved, even in F, and the message from RailEurope that came with the tickets just says, “Take the next train, open seating.” OK – that works. This is an older single-level ten-car Regional train – two F, one snack bar, and seven Standard class. It seems to crawl at a mere 70-75 MPH. Our car is about half full.

After our time in Lucerne, our last leg is a one-hour train to Zurich airport. The airport also has an intercity rail station in the basement. We go to the Lucerne station, serving a city of about 90,000. It is busier than the Minneapolis airport, with about 30 stub-end tracks, and a constant rush of trains of all kinds, including narrow gauge trains to Interlaken, and everything from 3- and 4-car EMUs to single- and bi-level SBB Regionals, and TGV-clone intercity trains to Germany and Italy. Trains are operated by at least four different operating companies. Again, it is sufficient to just buy a ticket and join the next train to your destination. In a half hour, there are more than 20 departures to various places. Trains leave for Zurich airport at 35 minutes past each hour. This time, we hit a problem – it is about 86 degrees, and amazingly the duplex Regional train is not air conditioned, so the last hour is most uncomfortable.

Contrasting the experience in Europe with Amtrak is easy, and not flattering to Amtrak. Even in the NEC, where Amtrak is, for the most part, master of its own fate, timekeeping and service standards are mediocre. Europeans would not understand the bizarre lack of services in the US west of Harrisburg, PA., or the utter absence of timekeeping integrity that is a daily occurrence here. Why do we accept almost daily two, three or four-hour late Empire Builders as “just the way it is”? Why is that acceptable? Neither would Europeans understand the parsimonious and inconsistent on board services that are common on Amtrak, and all but unheard of in western Europe. Still, the experience travelling by rail in Europe is instructive, not in the sense that we should try to mimic their services, but in the sense that it is manifest that Amtrak can do far better than it does, both in building a broader national network of services, and in providing a consistently dignified and customer-centered on board service environment. Until Amtrak significantly ups its game, we should not wonder that it struggles to achieve social relevance anywhere in the US.