Continental railroads have problems, but still leave Amtrak in the dust

Business Week
June 19, 2006

It's no secret that Europe's passenger train system is far superior to America's. The trains run on time, they're comfortable, they're affordable, and they have well-stocked dining cars. Most important, however, they're fast.

Starting with the birth of France's TGV (Train à Grand Vitesse, or High-Speed Train) in 1981, the European train industry (led by Alstom in France and Siemens in Germany) has been on the forefront of high-speed innovation. Streamlined design, underfloor traction systems, and tilting technology have brought the European high-speed train up to speeds of 186 mph (300 km/hr). The limiting factor now is no longer the trains themselves, but the tracks on which they run.

Although the TGV, Germany's ICE, Spain's AVE, and Italy's TAV (see our slide show to learn what all these abbreviations stand for) all maintain respectably high speeds within their own countries, the moment a train crosses a border, things tend to get a little complicated.

Although each of these countries has its own system of high-speed tracks, their neighbors often don't share it. For exactly this reason, both the Eurostar (which connects London to Paris and Brussels) and the Thalys (which runs between Paris and Amsterdam and Cologne, stopping in Brussels on the way) have had difficulties maintaining the high speeds promised by their TGV designs.

Off the tracks

Neither Britain nor The Netherlands has kept pace with the aggressive advances in rail technology made by France, Belgium, and Germany. The current travel time for the Eurostar's route between London and Paris is 2 hours and 35 minutes - 20 minutes slower than it should be, given the train's technical specifications. The Thalys' situation is even worse, taking 4 hours and 11 minutes to go from Paris to Amsterdam, when it should be closer to three hours.

The Thalys
The Thalys

Speedy Connections to Europe's Capital

The high-speed train that connects Paris to Brussels and continues on to Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Cologne turns 10 this year. Like the Eurostar, Thalys uses TGV technology. Unfortunately, also like the Eurostar, its actual speed is limited by deficient tracks. Between Paris and Brussels, Thalys flies along at its standard 186 mph (300 km/hr). But beyond Brussels, it slows to 124 mph (200 km/hr) or less. A new stretch of high-speed track from Brussels to the German border sped things up when it opened last year, but the Dutch leg remains in limbo.

A similar problem inhibits high-speed trains in the U.S. Amtrak's Acela Express, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., is technically capable of speeds upwards of 150 mph hour -- it runs on an Alstom-designed TGV engine - but the tracks aren't up to par, and there's little support for initiatives to improve them.

The American Answer is the Acela
The American Answer is the Acela

And the Acela is the fortunate one: A number of proposals for other high-speed train routes - most notably the Texas TGV and California Senator Diane Feinstein's proposed Los Angeles-San Francisco connection - have never moved beyond the drawing board.

Floating along

Due to legal opposition from Southwest Airlines, the Texas TGV, which proposed to connect Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio in 1991, was discarded in 1994. The California line, on the other hand, is still an official possibility, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger conspicuously omitted any funding for the California High-Speed Rail Project in his recent 10-year, $222 billion Public Works Bond.

In comparison, therefore, the Eurostar and the Thalys don't have it so bad. Britain has already completed the first half of its Channel Tunnel Rail Link, and the other half is slated to finish by 2007, which will shave 20 minutes off the ride. Plans for a new high-speed track for the Thalys in Amsterdam are also in place, but the anticipated completion date isn't until 2008.

Even as these updates are under way, a new technology could soon render them obsolete. Engineering companies are working to perfect magnetic levitation, or maglev for short, which uses electromagnetic energy to let trains literally levitate a few millimeters above the track. Because there's absolutely no friction between the train and the rails, maglev has the potential to push trains up to near jet speed.

Upgrade expense

Currently, Shanghai has the only high-speed maglev railway in operation -- running from the airport to the city center -- but its record-breaking high speed of 311 mph (501 km/hr) has attracted the world's interest, and now there are small-scale high-speed maglev projects in development in Munich, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and several other cities across the globe. Once again, however, the track is the limiting factor. Much like conventional high-speed trains, maglev trains require their own specialized tracks - and, although construction costs are comparable to those of standard high-speed tracks, the price is sufficiently high (about $53 million per mile) to make potential investors think twice.

So for the time being, high-speed maglev projects probably will remain small, serving primarily as commuter rails. But don't be surprised if you end up riding a train without wheels several years down the line.


A German railway station; Europe on a Fast Track
Europe on a Fast Track

While the U.S. rattles along with a creaking Amtrak, Europe has backed its faith in high-tech public transportation. The result is as fast as tomorrow

By Steve Jacobs Business Week Online

Europe has them. America doesn't. Ever since France launched its TGV high-speed trains a quarter-century ago, Europe has built a latticework of routes that let travelers connect between major cities in astonishingly little time. Paris to Brussels? An hour and 25 minutes in sleek, quiet comfort, with a coffee and croissant to ease the journey. You can leave your Parisian digs before breakfast for a meeting at the European Union and be back in time for a hot lunch. London to Paris? Two-and-a-half hours on the Eurostar lets you trade in fish and chips for foie gras.

Designed to compete with airlines, high-speed trains in Europe - defined roughly as those traveling faster than 125 mph (200 km/hr) - have been a huge hit with customers. Why haven't they caught on in the U.S.? Blame a love affair with cars, the prevalence of air travel, or just the big distances between cities. But Europe has shown that high-speed trains can compete with the growing availability of discount air travel. To stay ahead, rail companies have harnessed a dizzying array of technologies, from trains that tilt on curves to underfloor traction systems that spread the job of propeling the train to every carriage. Now, Europe's technology leaders are probing the limits of speed with magnetic-levitation trains that glide above the tracks at hundreds of miles per hour.

Rapido from Milan to Naples
Rapido from Milan to Naples

Italy's TAV (Treno Alto VelocitÓ or "High-Speed Train") is actually two separate trains: the Pendolino and the ETR 500, both built by Alstom. The Pendolino (which means "little pendulum" in Italian) uses the same tilting technology as the ICE to allow for high-speed travel on standard tracks. The top speed of this train is 155 mph (250 km/hr). The ETR (ElettroTreno or "Electric Train") 500's design does not include tilting technology, but when it runs on high-speed rails, it can travel at up to 186 mph (300 km/hr).

Maglev technology

Mag-Lev Technology

The U.S. could still get back into the game. Magnetic levitation - an American invention dating back to 1969 - is starting to take hold in the world of high-speed train travel. Using electromagnetic energy, mag-lev trains don't need wheels, instead literally floating just above the track on an electromagnetic cushion, offering the quietest and smoothest ride possible. Shanghai already has a high-speed mag-lev train running between the city and its airport. Now, numerous cities across the globe, including Pittsburgh, Munich, and San Diego, are developing plans to build their own mag-lev train systems, with the potential to extend tracks to neighboring cities in the future.

The German Rival - ICE

The German Rival

Germany's ICE (Inter City Express) train, developed by German conglomerate Siemens, has been in the high-speed game for nearly as long as the TGV and, over time, the competing high-speed train systems have come to look a lot alike. ICE trains criss-cross Germany today, from Hamburg to Munich. Like the TGV, today's third-generation ICE is outfitted with an underfloor traction system that offers the same smooth, quiet ride at 186 mph (300 km/hr). Another model of the ICE, however, employs technology that the TGV does not. The ICE-T circumvents the problem of sharply banked tracks by tilting into the curve, allowing the train to make faster turns without compromising passenger comfort. A train can only tilt so far, however, so, on these curvier routes the ICE only goes as high as 143 mph (230 km/hr).

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