Squirrel is very fond of boats—you may have guessed—and trains. Especially trains. Ever since the Chunnel opened, I’ve really been missing crossing the Channel on the ferry; though the dismal hanging around for a train at Calais Maritime, which always had the most abominable coffee and the stalest croissants I’ve had anywhere, I haven’t missed at all.
My regular trips to the south of France I make by train now, as I did for several years between London and Brussels. I’ve given up planes. OK, it takes a couple of hours to get to Paris, and another 5 to get down to the south, and it costs a bit more. But then, it takes me only about half an hour to get from home to St Pancras instead of three times that to get to one of the airports. And I don’t have to be there a couple of hours in advance to make sure I can get through the usual checking in and security farragos. And while it’s not going to be easy getting across Paris from one station to the other with a wheelchair as I shall have to do one day (let alone on and off the damn trains, since they’re built for continental platforms that are lower than the UK ones, which means steps) it’s likely to be a damn sight less frustrating and anxiety-inducing than trying it on a plane. You read an awful lot of horror stories about what baggage handlers—especially for budget airlines—manage to do to wheelchairs. One of the London Paralympics teams arrived at Heathrow to find practically all of theirs wrecked.
So, as I was saying, I like trains. So does ‘best friend’, who, having more or less commuted between London, Brussels and Paris for years on the Eurostar (and even succeeded a few years ago getting a train from Damascus to Jordan, even though, she said ruefully afterwards, hiring a donkey would have been quicker though with a lot less conversation) thought, when visiting San Fransisco, she might take a quick trip to Los Angeles by train. People there looked at her in amazement, but she didn’t entirely comprehend why until she tried to get a ticket. There was only one train a day, and it takes nine hours. (Or thirteen, three hours or so of which is, bizarrely, should you inspect the timetable more carefully than any European would expect to, by bus.) Cue a pic of a famous English train:
Which regularly did the broadly comparable distance in the 1930′s in six hours or so. You can do it in four and a half now. I always loved the look of that train, and I kept asking Father Christmas for one, but I never did get it.
I’ve been trying to follow the ‘high speed rail’ thing in the States. Such as it is. There’s a bit of a qualification here; over here, we do not really think of a train going at 100-125mph as ‘high speed’, more, well, sort of normal. That’s the speed of the trains between London and Edinburgh, which we’re stuck with because of lots of awkward bridges, tunnels, and—once you cross into Scotland—very bendy bits, left over from the days when a driver or third class passenger could barely stand up without his stovepipe hat being knocked off his head when the train went under a bridge or into a tunnel.
I write ‘trying’, because it seems to have got increasingly difficult to get a real picture of what’s going on. Or not. As far as I can tell, all that’s left of the original ‘grand design’ for real high speed trains all around the US (i.e. those that go at least at 180-200mph) is the California one. And that seems to have got mired in the usual Republican Party “anything Obama likes we’re against” palaaver. Even though they seem to have forgotten that way back in 2004 they thought a nationwide network of TGV’s was a really good idea. And even more muddied by litigation all over the place.
The upshot appears to be, as far as I can make out, that this year work will start on a whole 29 miles of ‘high speed railway’ which will, in another five years expand to a hundred-and-odd miles between Fresno and somewhere else, whose name I’ve forgotten. Around 2018, apparently, Amtrak trains (the one that now takes nine hours or more to get from San Fransisco to Los Angeles) will be able, hopefully, to travel that whole hundred miles at a staggeringly shocking speed of between 90 and 120mph. So at a rough guess, it might only take eight hours, or maybe 12, to make the trip. It won’t even be electrified ready for a real high speed train until around 2022.
Possibly like one of these, which are replacing the now rather tired original ones, and I expect I’ll be taking across the Channel in the autumn:
Some looks don’t really change that much, do they? Just add a little chimney and a plume of steam . . .
This, apparently, is because that stretch is to be used as a ‘testbed’. Why California should need a ‘testbed’ 29 miles long—or, OK, maybe a hundred—and for several years is a bit of a mystery. The Coronation Scot up above got a speed record of 114mph in 1937; its rival the LNER’s Mallard got up to 125mph the following year. Even a train (though a specially short and light one) in the US, the Burlington Zephyr, had managed over 100mph in 1934. And these were steam trains that needed someone with plenty of muscle to do a lot of coalheaving. We’ve had 125mph trains running here regularly since 1976. And the French, of course, were doing it well before. Their current record is 357mph, though the TGV’s running around Europe regularly now only get up to between 200-240. There are hundreds of them, and thousands of miles of track for them to run on, complete with all the wires, electricity sub stations, power stations, signalling, and even wi-fi . . .
What on earth is there to ‘test’? You can buy all this stuff almost like picking it off a supermarket shelf ready wrapped for you to take home. And if you’re a bit short of cash, you could probably take Eurostars’ old ones off their hands for nothing, though they’ve probably got another 20 or 30 years in them. Anyone from California who wants to give them the once-over just needs to look up North Pole on Google maps and come along. North Pole, London, England, I should say. They don’t have any high speed trains at the other one.
It’s obviously going to be a long time before my friend is going to be able to hop on a train in San Francisco and have a day out in Los Angeles like people in London, Paris or Brussels regularly do between their cities, because the trip only takes a bit more than two hours.* 2029, they say. But given the persistence of the ‘anti’ politicians and what seems to be an ever-increasing number of litigious pressure groups against it, you have to wonder. By which time, of course, there’s a good chance that the rest of the world (except probably for the UK, and that’s a sad bloody story, too, now) will be travelling not on ’21st century’ trains (as the California Authority calls them, though they are actually 20th century ones) but 22nd Century ones at twice the speed of Californians and three times faster than anyone else on any train in the rest of the country. . . .
* Actually, given the number of proposed stations in between, only direct through trains will be able to achieve anything like that anyway; the most likely duration looks more like 3 1/2 to 4 hours or more. Just one additional stop between London and Paris, or London and Brussels, means those trains take 20 minutes longer. The official site looks a bit disingenuous; for the last few miles into both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the trains will be limited to the same maximum speed as local commuter trains are now. Which actually is lower than the Crossrail trains that will be crossing London underground in four years’ time. That’s exactly what bedevilled the Eurostar for years until they finally built a high speed line straight into London. There’s nothing more dispiriting than to have spent a couple of hours belting through the countryside at 180 miles an hour only to spend the last thirty minutes watching your super-train trundling along only a little quicker than the cars on the motorway alongside. (Though I used to rather like the train brushing against bushes and trees and having time to admire the flowers on some of the stations.) But that was still faster than the last legs into San Francisco or LA look likely to be.
That’s not really going to convince Angelinos to take the train instead of the plane, I suspect. But that’s the point. One reason that high speed trains are popular all over Europe is that while a journey may take longer than a flight, on many you save time at both ends because you’re in the middle of the city you want to get to. And even if it takes twice as long, the seats are more comfortable, you have more space, and you can wander along the train and have a beer or glass of wine and a sandwich. And you can keep your luggage near you. I would have said you also avoid the security hassles you now get at airports, though that doesn’t quite hold for the Eurostar of course. Even so, you get through that very much faster and with a lot less hassle at St Pancras or the Gare du Nord than any airport. I’m usually through the security and passport control at St Pancras in no more than five minutes. But unfortunately, tucked away in the California High Speed Rail Authority’s documentation is a proposal that takes even that pleasurable advantage away. They intend, it seems, to implement ‘airport style security screening’ at the stations . . .
Oh dear. Oh dear . . .
That new Eurostar train (the same as many running in Europe already) btw, will take 750 passengers; the same as two Boeing 747′s. About fifty per cent more than they do now. The TGV I take down to the south of France is two ‘Duplex’ double decker trains together when it’s going on to Barcelona: that’s nearly a thousand if it’s full, and it often is pretty much in summer. That’s between 300 and 500 cars that aren’t on the roads for every train. I’m hoping, too, that Eurostar will do what the French do: mobile phones are banned in the carriages. You’re only supposed to use them in the corridors between them; there are a couple of little seats there for people who can’t live without them. There have been trips where I’ve heaved a huge sigh of relief and gratitude as we hit the tunnel where they don’t work.