The European rail network is as integral a part of Europe as the interstate highway system is in the United States. How it fits into the overall transportation network is a big part of why it is successful. Let’s take a look at some key elements…
Train Stations and Their Location: Like the USA, cities in Europe grew around the train station over the decades. Unlike the USA train stations remained active, so today even large cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Rome all have train stations that sit in the heart of the city, with convenient access to shopping districts, government buildings, museums and office high rises. Besides a ticket office, most European train stations also contain bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants, and grocery stores. Some even have clothing and shoe stores and look more like a shopping mall than a train station. Compare that with the closest train station to where you are. Very different, I bet…
Train Station Access: Imagine a large oak tree, from the roots all the way up to the branches. The transportation networks in European cities are similar in this way. Neighboring towns (like a root system) have bus and tram networks that collect schoolchildren, shoppers, business people, and just about anyone else and bring them to the local train station. Acting like the trunk, commuter trains bring them into the city center where another network of trams and busses branch off (see what I did there?) into the different parts of downtown to get these people to virtually every corner of the city. For a large percentage of the population it’s quite easy to work, shop, and vacation without ever needing to set foot inside an automobile.
Frequency and Quality: To further explain the importance of public transit in Europe is to look at the buses, trams and trains themselves. Heavy investment by regional and national governments means the buses, trams and trains are modern and fast, with convenience and safety features required by a busy transportation network. There are usually special areas on most train cars for handicapped access and bicycle transport, with large doors for ease of getting off and on the train during its short stop in most stations. The railway network itself uses modern technology to insure safety on even the busiest of routes. It’s not unusual to see trains passing on the same track in five-minute intervals during peak commuter times. This makes train travel more convenient for students and employees who have to get from home to work/school as quickly as possible, and allows the network to handle a much larger load of passengers.
Perception: Picture a typical bus or train user in the United States. What characteristics come to mind? Be honest. Did you think of someone whose income doesn’t allow them to afford a car? Maybe a college student? This perception doesn’t exist in Europe. The railway and public transportation network are viewed as a smart alternative to the challenges and costs of driving and parking a vehicle. From a ‘night on the town’ to a daily trip to classes for a university student, when traveling to big cities or just the next town over, mass transit in Europe isn’t a ‘lesser’ form of travel- it is a viable and affordable alternative.
European railroads are different from American railroads. Now, there’s a profound statement if there ever was one. Americans who have traveled on European trains often come home with stories of how efficient and how modern European passenger trains are. In general, I’d say that’s a pretty accurate description!
What turns some of us on is the incredible variety of locomotives and rolling stock to be found in Germany, Switzerland, France and the rest of the European continent. Add to this quaint and perhaps exotic narrow gauge systems in many parts of Europe. Then throw in vast stretches of rail under catenary systems used by an almost bewildering array of electric locomotives. Then there is no lack of diesels. As in the U.S., steam is a thing of the past, at least in Western Europe.
As one of our members has demonstrated with his videos, train watching near any large station can be enormously rewarding for enthusiasts of European trains. One moment you may see an elegant white and red ICE (Intercity Express) streak through. Then there might be a long freight hauled by a modern three-phase electric engine. Hardly have these passed and you may spot a small diesel switcher switching cars on some sidings. As if that isn’t enough, don’t be surprised if you see a perfectly restored steam engine pulling equally pristine coaches on a specially booked fan trip. Now, mind you, this sort of activity goes on all over Europe.
At the risk over overstating myself, passenger service is superb. Major German cities are reached quickly with the ICE (Inter City Express) and the slightly less prestigious IC (Inter City) trains. These trains invariably have specific names. You might find yourself on the Johann Sebastian Bach IC or the Konrad Röntgen ICE, named after the discoverer of X-rays. Dining car service with starched white tablecloths is still very much alive, as are sleeping cars, however there is a slow but steady decline with the advent of very high-speed trains. Small towns and cities are not ignored and while they may not have an ICE or IC stop, they do have efficient and frequent passenger service.
France has, of course, the now world famous TGV – Tres Grande Vitesse. The French have taken ultra-high speed passenger service to an entirely new level. The TGV running on dedicated lines, radiating out from Paris, do not interchange directly with slower, lower performance trains. Going to England from France? Well, the Chunnel train is the way to do it. The system is equipped with the newest electric locomotives.
In September 2006 a production four-axle, off-the-shelf electric locomotive (Siemens ES64U4) belonging to the Austrian Federal Railways broke the 51-year speed record held by a French electric locomotive. The Austrian locomotive reached 221.8 mph on the line between Nuremberg and Stuttgart. The engine develops 8,500 hp.
Switzerland is a small country but it has a vast rail network in which narrow gauge plays as an important a part as does normal gauge. The Swiss Federal Railways and the numerous private railroads within the small land-locked country are probably 99 percent electrified.
Perhaps one of the curious things about European railroads is that different countries cannot seem to agree on catenary voltages. An almost bewildering variety is evident and this accounts for a number of electric locomotives that have three pantographs to be used for three different voltages. Here are some of the countries and the operating voltages. Germany, Switzerland, Austria 15 kV, 16-2/3 Hz; France, 25 kV, 50 Hz and 1.5 kV DC; Italy 3 kV DC; Holland 1.5 kV DC and Belgium 3 kV DC. To further compound this mix, the many Swiss and Austrian narrow gauge systems (public and private) may use different voltages again.
Then there’s the matter of running direction. Germany, Denmark, Austria, Luxemburg, the Netherlands run on the right side of the track, just as on the roads but when you visit Switzerland, France, Belgium and Italy, you’ll find trains running on the left side. You’d think they were driving on English roads. How this and all those different power systems are managed without dire consequences is, in my mind, a small miracle.
The once very common two-axle freight cars that distinguished the vast majority of European freight and passenger cars are beginning to disappear. Many more four axle, high capacity freight cars are in evidence and so are unit trains. Freight rolling stock owned by the Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) is now painted a bright orange reddish color where once box cars and gondola and hopper cars were a very traditional reddish-brown, very much as in the U.S.. Privately owned freight cars are not required to conform to the DB’s colors. Long distance passenger cars, sleepers and dining cars come in many shapes and sizes. These are a colorful lot wherever you go in Europe.