Saturday, April 30, 2016

EURO RAIL | Why Better than Amtrak

 Florence-Milan-Lausanne-Paris. Train route by TGV,
annotated by JT Marlin.
Paris, April 30, 2016–We came here from Florence yesterday via Italian, Swiss and French rail services.

We were on three trains for a total of 9 hours, with a 3-hour layover in Milan. The trip was fun and it was restful. It beats Amtrak hands down. We took a similarly long trip from New York City to Orlando and doubt we will ever do that again.

We left Florence at 7:30 a.m. on an Italian train, arriving in Milan at 9:30 a.m. We boarded a Swiss train for Lausanne a little after noon, then got on a fast French train (the TGV) for Paris, arriving about 8 p.m.
Your blogger, enjoying a stroop wafel
and taking in the Stresa stop. Photo by
Alice Tepper Marlin.

We chose the best available class of service for each leg of service, as we tend to do in the USA, except when the difference in service is mostly just a little extra speed as in the case of Amtrak's Acela on the Washington-Boston route.

Where European Rail Beats American

The European trains were better than Amtrak on the following criteria:
  • Speed and On-time Performance. The European trains go faster. The French TGV travels 320 km/hour or faster). At every point on the trip the time when the trains left was close to their scheduled time.
  • Maintenance of Track. One reason the trains travel so fast and yet the ride is so smooth is that the tracks are well maintained. This is a great contrast with some of the sections of the Amtrak rail bed. I noticed that on one stretch the tracks are sprayed with a white paint that must be used to help prevent rust... and it also looked good.
  • Scenery. Was it my imagination, to do people in the communities that the train passed through care what the passengers see through the window, or is there just a broader environmental awareness? The views were of well-looked-after spaces. I didn't see any junkyards on the trip. There were graffiti in a few places in some big cities, but not for long on this trip.
Alice Tepper Marlin snapping a lake scene in Italy.
Photo by JT Marlin.
Why Is Euro Rail Better?

I can think of a few reasons the top European trains are better than Amtrak:
  • Higher Density. Apart from a few dense corridors along the east and west coasts of the USA, European inter-city traffic is greater than the USA.
  • Shorter Distances.  Once one leaves the east and west coasts, American travel gravitates toward air travel because the distances are greater. This may be the saying same thing as density.
  • U.S. Postwar Priority for Roads and Airports. America invested heavily in roads and airports after World War II. This sucked some of the life out of the American railroads, although it made travel by car much easier and opened up many new areas for development.
  • Competition with Air.  European rail has to compete with a wide variety of inexpensive and high-frequency air services like RyanAir and EasyJet. Equivalent competition exists on the west coast and on routes served by Jet Blue, but the East Coast shuttle services have been viewed as cash cows. 
Where Amtrak Wins: WiFi en Foute

Alice Tepper Marlin on the roof of the Duomo in
Milan. Photo by Amy Hall.
For business travelers the lack of WiFi on these legs of Euro Rail (usually pronounced WeeFee in Italy, Switzerland and France) could be a problem.

It could spell IDS (internet deficit syndrome), aka Web Deprivation.

A member of the train staff said that it was possible to pick up WiFi at each station, but one had to be more skilled at this than I was to figure out how to do this, and it seemed a lot of trouble for a short window of opportunity.

Report on Each Leg of the Trip

Each segment was 2-4 hours. We had a three-hour stop in Milan that allowed us to visit the Duomo.

Presentation of Mary to the Rabbi in the
Milan Duomo. Photo by JT Marlin.
1. Florence-Milan. The first leg from Florence at 7:30 a.m. to Milan was Italian, and took us through rolling farmland, vineyards, some mountains and lakeside resorts, notably Stresa, a famed vacation and conference spot.

The breakfast on the Italian leg was elegantly served.

In Milan we disembarked at 9:30 a.m. and had three hours to sightsee before starting for Lausanne.

We met up with Amy Hall and her associate Luna Lee and we all visited the Duomo in Milan.

At the Duomo I was especially impressed with the sculpture of Mary being presented by her parents Anne and Joaquin to the rabbi. See photo at left. I don't know what Biblical support there is for this piece of art but I found it compelling. Mary is the small child in the photo and the rabbi is above her with his arms outstretched. Mary and Joaquin are to the rabbi's right.

Piazza del Duomo from the roof.
Photo by Alice Tepper Marlin.
The Duomo was well protected by men in camouflage carrying machine guns. Everyone entering the Duomo was screened for weapons.

I asked a woman who was helping tourists inside the Duomo whether she felt safer having all this protection.

Lausanne: The top sign says
"Picnic Interdit". Photo by
JT Marlin
She said with great intensity: "Safer? No! We are at war!"

2. Milan-Lausanne.  The second leg from Milan to Lausanne was Swiss-run. The view was riveting–the contrast between the alps and the farms or vineyards was especially stunning. I am posting a few examples.

In Lausanne there was time to check out a local tea shop and discover a sign warning visitors that picnics in the tea shop were not permitted.

Farm and Alps in Switzerland. Photo by JT Marlin
3. Lausanne-Paris. Finally we got on the TGV (train de grand vitesse) to Paris via Dijon. We could have traveled via Geneva, but we were interested in taking a different route.

One of the most impressive visual standouts of this leg of the trip were the yellow flowers that I am told are rapeseed used to populate fields during their fallow periods.

Summing Up

Lovely yellow flowers in France;
we think they are rapeseed used on
fallow ground. Photo by JT Marlin.
The rail trip was a break for us during several weeks of travel. It gave us a sense of European space that you don't get from hopping airport to airport.

The best part of the trip was the Swiss component, with the alpine views.

Would we do it again? The Swiss section yes. Otherwise we would probably not take such a long unbroken trip by rail again, even though we enjoyed this one.

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