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.