High speed rail is marketed as a sustainable alternative to air traffic. According to the International Union of Railways, the high speed train “plays a key role in a stage of sustainable development and combating climate change”. As a regular long-distance train traveller in Europe, I have to say that the opposite is true. High speed rail is destroying the most valuable alternative to the airplane; the “low speed” rail network that has been in service for decades.
The introduction of a high speed train connection invariably accompanies the elimination of a slightly slower, but much more affordable, alternative route, forcing passengers to use the new and more expensive product, or abandon the train altogether. As a result, business people switch from full-service planes to high speed trains, while the majority of Europeans are pushed into cars, coaches and low-cost airplanes.
A look at European railway history shows that the choice for the elite high speed train is far from necessary. Earlier efforts to organize speedy international rail services in Europe accompanied affordable prices and different ways to increase the speed and comfort of a rail trip. Quite a few of these services were even faster than today’s high speed trains.
Five years ago I promised my readers I would not fly anymore. Hopping on a plane would be a hypocritical thing to do when you run a publication called Low-tech Magazine. Since then, I have been travelling across Europe almost exlusively by train (apart from the occasional boat trip), good for some 70,000 km of long-distance travel. I went as far north as Helsinki, as far south as Málaga, and as far east as Budapest. Europe has the most amazing railway network in the world. It gets you anywhere, anytime, and it’s much more fun and interesting to travel by train than by air.
However, this is not the time to get lyrical about the pleasures of long-distance train travel. Every year, it becomes harder to keep my promise, and the advance of the high speed train is to blame. As more and more reliable train routes are shut down in favour of high speed lines, international train travel becomes prohibitively expensive. Strangely enough, many of these abolished routes are almost as fast, and sometimes even faster, than the new, expensive high speed connections.
As an example, let’s have a look at the route which I cover most often: from Barcelona, Spain (where I live) to the Netherlands and Belgium (where I grew up). It is now possible to travel all the way from Barcelona to Amsterdam by high speed train, a trip of 1,700 km. The final link between Barcelona and the French border was inaugurated December 15, 2013. Great news, you would think.
The section between Paris and Amsterdam is a busy trajectory with a long history. The first direct train between Paris and Amsterdam was established in 1927. The Étoile du Nord, a train operated by the Belgian Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits, covered the 545 km long route in about eight hours. There was one train per day in each direction. 1
The Thalys is two to three times as expensive as the Étoile du Nord, while it’s only 25% faster.
During the subsequent decades, the rolling stock was modernised, the capacity of the line was extended with extra trains, and the length of the journey was gradually reduced. By 1957, travel time had been shortened to five and a half hours, by 1971 it was five hours, and in 1995, the last year of its operation, the train did the trip in four hours and 20 minutes. At that time, the route was also covered by a night train which took eight hours. The itinerary of these services is indicated by the red line in the illustration below.
In 1996, the Étoile du Nord was retired and replaced by a high speed train which is still running today: the Thalys. It takes another, somewhat longer route via Lille, which is depicted by the blue line on the illustration. By 2011, when the whole section was equipped with new high speed track, the travel time of the Thalys had come down to 3h19, about one hour faster than the 1995 Étoile du Nord. Some years after the arrival of the high speed service, the direct night train between Paris and Amsterdam was also abolished.
The relatively modest time gain of the Thalys has a steep price. The fare for the Étoile du Nord was a fixed amount calculated according to a rate per kilometre. Converted to the current kilometre charges of the Belgian, French and Dutch railways, a single ticket Paris-Amsterdam over the same route (the blue line) would now cost 66 euro, regardless of whether you buy it two months in advance or right before you leave.
The fare for the Thalys, on the other hand, is determined by market demand and booking time. If you order well in advance and if your departure time is not fixed, you might get a single ticket for as less as €44—two thirds of the kilometre rate. These heavily advertised prices, however, are the exception rather than the rule. If you buy a single ticket the day of your departure, you pay €206, almost five times as much. Most tickets, even if ordered two or three weeks in advance, cost €119 or €129—almost three times as much as the widely promoted fares 2. In marketing, this pricing strategy is called “reducing ticket costs” 3 4.
Killing the alternatives
The Thalys is two to three times as expensive as the Étoile du Nord, while it’s only 25% faster. For most people, the time gained by taking the high speed train is not worth the extra cost. However, since the Étoile du Nord has vanished, they are left no other choice than to pay more when they want to travel by train.
You can still travel cheaply by low speed train between Paris and Amsterdam—over the same route that was covered by the Étoile du Nord. But you have to be very patient: the trip takes 7 to 8 hours and you have to switch trains 5 to 6 times (Paris–Maubeuge–Jeumont–Erquelinnes–Charleroi–Brussels–Amsterdam). A one-way trip costs €66, half the price of the most common fare of the Thalys.
It’s an adventure, not a regular train ride. And it’s become even more unpredictable since December 2012, when the train service between Jeumont (the French border town) and Erquelinnes (the Belgian border town) was suspended. The trip now includes a 30 minute walk or a 10 minute bus ride across the border. This is why the route doesn’t show up on online route planners. I only discovered it after I learned about the existence of the Étoile du Nord and started following its itinerary.
There is another alternative route between Paris and Amsterdam, which consists of a combination of regional trains following more or less the same trajectory as the Thalys (Paris–Amiens–Lille–Courtrai–Brussels–Amsterdam), but it’s more expensive (€99) and only marginally faster.
You can still travel cheaply by low speed train between Paris and Amsterdam, but the trip takes as long as it did in 1927 and you have to walk half an hour to cross the border between France and Belgium.
Quite surprisingly, those who want to avoid the high costs associated with the high speed train between Paris and Amsterdam are much worse off today than people were in 1927, when the trip also took eight hours, but there was no need to switch trains or walk across the border. 5
The Thalys is not an isolated case. The completion of the last link in the high speed line between Barcelona and Paris on December 15, 2013, had a predictable consequence: the abolishment of the direct night train between both cities, the Trenhotel Joan Miró. This very popular train ran daily in both directions and covered the distance in about 12 hours, leaving around 20h30 in evening and arriving around 08h30 in morning. It was introduced in 1974, and received its present name and rolling stock in 1991.
Again, this is not the time to marvel about the comfortable cabins, the linen table clothing in the dining car, or the many friends I have made on this trip. Let’s just look at the numbers. The fare for a one-way trip on the Trenhotel Joan Miró was between €70 (ordered more than two weeks in advance) and €140 euro (ordered shortly before departure). The standard fare on the new high speed train covering the same trajectory is €170, up to twice as much. As with the Thalys, heavily advertised cheaper fares (€59 euro) are available for early bookers, but the availability of these tickets is very, very limited.
At first sight, it seems that you get something valuable in return for this steep price: a travel time of slightly over six hours. However, numbers don’t tell the whole story here. On a night train, passengers sleep about seven to eight hours, which brings the perceived travel time back to between four and five hours—faster than the high speed train. Furthermore, the night train meant you arrived in Paris or Barcelona in the early morning, which can be very practical. If you want to arrive early morning by high speed train, you need to take a train the day before and book a hotel, increasing the overall cost.
As of 2014, a round trip between Barcelona and Amsterdam will set me back at least €580 at standard fare. Before the introduction of the high speed train, the cost was €270.
For die-hard idiots like me, there are still cheaper options available. You can take a regional train from Barcelona to the French border, either going straight over the Pyrenees (via Latour de Carol-Enveitg) or alongside the coast (via Cerbère-Portbou). From these border stations, you can hop on a domestic night train to Paris—in spite of its extensive high speed network, France still has some domestic night trains. A one-way trip costs about €70 to €140, corresponding with the fare of the abolished Trenhotel. However, this is cold comfort as the trip takes close to 16 hours and requires an extra change. And forget all the comfort and extras that came with the Trenhotel: you sleep in a cabin with six instead of four beds, and there isn’t even a drinking fountain onboard, let alone a bar or a restaurant.
In summary, as of 2014, a round trip between Barcelona and Amsterdam will set me back at least €580 at standard fare. In 2013, a combination of the now suspended Trenhotel and the Thalys allowed me to travel back and forth by train for a minimum standard fare of €360. And in the early 1990s, combining the Étoile du Nord and the Trenhotel would have allowed me to make the trip for a minimum of €270 euro (calculated at today’s kilometre rate). The price has doubled, while the travel time remained more or less the same.
Let’s go East !
The worst is yet to come, though. The high speed line between Paris and Barcelona has also cut off my gateway to Central and Eastern Europe. Contrary to the “slow” train route that goes over the mountains and then heads straight to Paris, the high speed track does a sharp turn to the right, heading towards Narbonne and Montpellier in the south of France before setting course to Paris. If I want to go to Italy, Switzerland, Austria or beyond, I have to go in the same direction.
The completion of the high speed track between Montpellier and the Spanish border in 2010 led to the suspension of three “slow” trains. The first was the Catalan Talgo, a direct train that had run between Barcelona and Montpellier since 1969. In fact, it originally operated between Barcelona and Geneva in Switzerland, but the route was shortened when the high speed line between Montpellier and Geneva was opened in 1994.
I felt lucky to be travelling on this train, which still used the original rolling stock from 1969. But, again, this is not the time for nostalgia. Look at the numbers. The original Catalan Talgo, running between Barcelona and Geneva until 1994, completed the journey in 10 hours. My only option when travelling to Geneva now involves a combination of three high speed trains and a regional train with a total travel time of eight to ten hours—just as fast as the Catalan Talgo in the 1970s, but that was direct. The train itself may have been in need of an upgrade, but the direct connection clearly wasn’t.
A trip from Barcelona to Switzerland or Italy now takes longer than before the installation of the high speed train. In spite of this, fares on the route have more than doubled.
The two other trains were abolished in December 2012. These were night trains: the Trenhotel Pau Casals, which ran between Barcelona and Zürich (Switzerland), and the Trenhotel Salvador Dalì, which connected Barcelona and Milan (Italy). They each took about 13 hours to complete their journey, leaving around 20h30 in evening and arriving at 10h00 in morning. The only way to reach Zürich now is through a combination of at least two high speed trains that take 11 hours. The only way to get to Milan is now through a combination of two high speed trains and a regional train with a total travel time of over 12 hours.
A trip from Barcelona to Switzerland or Italy now takes longer than before the installation of the high speed train. In spite of this, fares on the route have more than doubled. This is why I started thinking about doing my next trip by bicycle.
High Speed Trains are not Sustainable
Despite its supposed efficiency, the high speed train will not make my travels any more sustainable. Passengers who switch from low speed trains to high speed trains, like I have to do now, increase energy use and carbon emissions. However, most Europeans aren’t like me. If they travel between Amsterdam and Barcelona, they take a plane. If we are to believe the European Union, who has made the high speed train a key element in its strategy to make long-distance transportation less energy and carbon-intensive, passengers who now take planes will switch to high speed trains.
However, if you compare the ticket prices, it’s obvious that this won’t happen. You can fly back and forth between Barcelona and Amsterdam with a low-cost airline for €100 if you book one to two weeks in advance, and for about €200 if you buy the ticket on the day of departure. 6 That’s compared to €580 for what the journey would cost you if you would take the high speed train. Furthermore, the flight only takes about two hours. 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
With the arrival of high speed trains and low-cost airlines, rich and poor are simply swapping long-distance transport modes.
Historically, train fares have always been lower than air fares. The arrival of high speed trains and low-cost airlines in the 1990s has inverted this. Rich and poor have simply swapped travel modes: the masses are now travelling by plane, while the elite take the train. Since there are less rich Europeans, this obviously won’t bring any energy savings or reductions in carbon emissions.
High speed trains share a fundamental problem with almost all other “sustainable” high-tech solutions that are being marketed these days: they are way too expensive to become mainstream. This explains why installing 10,000 km of high speed train lines did not stop the growth of passenger air traffic in Europe. From 1993 to 2009, air traffic in Europe grew by an average of 3-5% per year. It is estimated to grow by another 50% from 2012 to 2030 in spite of the present economic downturn and the 20,000 km of high speed lines that still need to be built. 8
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Kris De Decker (edited by Deva Lee)
Present and historical timetables and itineraries cited in this article come from a variety of sources. For present timetables starting December 2013, I have consulted the online database of the German Railways (the link goes to the Austrian version which I find more user-friendly), as well as the online timetables from RENFE (Spain), SNCF (France), NMBS (Belgium), NS(The Netherlands), SBB (Switzerland) and TrenItalia (Italy). For recent timetables pre-dating December 2013 (rail operators traditionally change timetables and trains routes in December), I have relied on the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable and my own collection of train tickets. Information about train routes was found in a variety of rail maps and atlasses. The historical timetables for the Étoile du Nord and other trains were found in the Dutch Magazine “Het Spoor”. ↩
All prices: winter 2013. See TGV-europe and the national railway operators listed in footnote1. Fares from before December 2013 are based on my own collection of train tickets. The Man in Seat 61 provided missing information. ↩
Applying Low Cost Airline Pricing Strategies on European Railroads, Thomas Sauter-Servaes, 2006 ↩
In 2012, a joint venture between Belgian and Dutch railways introduced a competing high speed train on the section between Brussels and Amsterdam: the Fyra. Its introduction went together with the abolishment of a slightly slower but much cheaper alternative, the—-which is also operated by the Belgian and Dutch railways. If everything would have gone according to plan, the route between Amsterdam and Brussels would now be a copy of the route between Paris and Brussels. Travellers would be forced to use the more expensive fast train, or take a combination of regional trains that would be ridiculously slow. However, the Fyra trains were plagued by technical problems and had to be retired after two months. An alternative route has been established—slower than the Benelux train, but faster than the combination of regional trains. It is still unclear how things will evolve in the future. For the calculations of travel times in this article, I assume that the Benelux train is still running. ↩
Can’t afford London’s sky-high rent? Try commuting from Barcelona, The Atlantic Cities, November 2013. ↩