Friday, February 09, 2007

Trains rule

There are many things that should have ended up on this blog in the last few weeks, but I never got around to writing the entry. Mostly, I've been too busy. A couple of times, I've started an entry but decided not to post it, or simply forgot the stub to a window buried beneath all other windows on the desktop. Sometimes things just go wrong and technology fails. For instance, there's a cool video in youtube that I want to share with you, but the automatic embedding didn't work. I'll try again soon.

The entry about Pekka Kuusisto's amazing gig in Cambridge (that I promised someone I'd write) never materialised, and might not. (Just got to say, it was amazing, he was amazing, the music was amazing. Go buy all his records. Twice. Give them to all your friends for all the occasions you'd normally buy a present for. And most importantly, go to all his gigs. One old guy asked us (a group of Finns) after the concert when we were waiting by the stage backdoor to get to thank the artist, whether we "follow him around or just came to see this concert". That sounded funny but I suppose the idea wouldn't be totally out of this world, especially after that gig.)

Anyway, to newer things. More recent, that is. I returned from Amsterdam yesterday evening. I was the only one of our group of 5 to arrive yesterday, the others took the plane. Or tried to, but due to adverse weather conditions and loads of cancellations they had to spend an extra night somewhere in Holland, and I still haven't heard of them so don't know when it was that they finally arrived, if they indeed have. Both Stansted and Amsterdam were hit by the cold snap and heavy snowfall, and loads of flights were cancelled or at least severely delayed.

In contrast, I was at home at the scheduled time, as I took the train. There was a 30 minute delay in Schiphol (where the train stops after leaving Amsterdam) due to a signal failure that was undoubtedly caused by the ridiculously dense snowfall, and another shorter delay in Brussels with the Eurostar departure (probably due to bad weather in the UK), but other than that, it was smooth running.

Originally I decided to take the train rather than the plane because it is so much more ecological. Also, on short distances like this it is more convenient. The train takes five and a half hours from London to Amsterdam, and this means from centre to centre. A flight takes an hour, but when you factor in the 2 hours check-in time, passport and baggage reclaim queues and of course the train or taxi rides between the airport and the city centre at both ends, you actually end up spending about the same time. Of course, I have to factor in the time it takes me to get from Cambridge to Waterloo station and back, which is about 1 hour 15 minutes, and the 30 minutes you need to reserve for checking in to the Eurostar. So, on a good day you get from Cambridge to Amsterdam in about 4.5 hours, and the train option takes about 7.5-8 hours, depending on train changing times.

But this time, the train proved to be about a full day quicker than the plane. With all the cheap flights, more and more people are flying more and more often, and the airports are getting more busy, the queues longer (also due to security issues) and delays more and more likely. Also, with more people on the move, any disruption is likely to cause a lot of hassle for many people.

While flying seems to get slower and slower, with extra security checks and heavy traffic, the trains are getting faster. A faster track is being built for the Eurostar on the UK side. In the so-called CTRL-project Channel Train Link), the terminal is also going to be moved to St Pancras stations from Waterloo. This is good news to Cambridge-people, as the fast trains from Cambridge arrive at King's Cross, which is literally next door from the St Pancras terminal. And since the new track cuts the travel time to for example Gare du Nord to 2 hours 15 minutes, I really can't see any point in flying to Paris after November, when the works are scheduled to be completed.

Already, there are practically no flights between Paris and Brussels, thanks to the fast trains. Similarly, fast Thalys train (the Belgian fast train) operating between Brussels and Amsterdam (although slower connection in average km/h) makes flying between the two cities pointless. The only point, and that is a big one, I must admit, is that the flights are often cheaper than the trains. My commuter-train - tube - Eurostar - Thalys -combination cost about £160 return, whereas flights at the time of booking were selling for £47 return. Add to this the £15 for trains to and from Stansted, and whatever it costs to get from Schiphol to Central Amsterdam, and you still save about 50% compared to the train option. This, from the point of view of the environment, is insane.

If we disregard the fact that the plane-takers were stranded in the airport for a day, as that is still luckily unusual, I still find a whole host of reasons why trains rule over planes. In short, I found the train-ride much more pleasant than any short-haul flight I have ever taken. First, there are practically no luggage limitations, and so I could take my computer with me in a backpack, which I no longer can take into plane as it is too big for the current regulations. Also, I brought a ton of books (all the same title, my friend's PhD thesis) with me, as she was flying and therefore couldn't bring the books herself due to the luggage restrictions. Second, I'd much rather spend the few hours of travel on the move than waiting in a lobby or queuing. I find it impossible to work in planes (apart from long-haul flights) with all the restrictions for use of electronic appliances, non-existing legroom and the said waiting and queuing. On a train it's a different thing, and the modern, fast ones are built for comfort and as the faster services stop relatively rarely, working is usually good and productive. And when work ends it's possible to sleep.

Third, the view. On a plane, and if the day is clear, you get great views for about 3 minutes, when the plane takes off and when it lands. While it is true that cities don't usually show their prettiest face to the railway tracks, there is something to watch all the time, great sceneries and places going by - although sometimes at 300 km/h.

Finally, as trains have much lower carbon emissions per passengermile than planes, and are more environmentally friendly than cars (more efficient, lower emissions, and railways take less land than roads), you get back the pure enjoyment of travel, and lose the guilt you feel about flying.

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