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Train Travel Is Not All it’s Cracked Up to Be September 4, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I cannot tell you how much I enjoy visiting Europe. I have had the opportunity to visit around 15 times in the last five years, and every single trip has been great. I’ve been to Zurich (five times) Brussels, Prague (twice), Bruges, London, Bilbao, Vienna, Sofia, Berlin (twice) and Tallinn, and have always had a really good experience. I hope to continue going back as long as I can function.

I am currently assisting my sister and her daughter in visiting Europe for their first and perhaps only time. They have chosen to go to Vienna, with day trips to Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest. The guided tour day trip routine isn’t my cup of tea, but as this may be their only visit, I applaud their initiative.

I will be in the Berlin area at the same time, speaking at Mobile App Europe, and was seeking to perhaps visit them in Vienna on their excursion. I ultimately concluded that it was both too expensive and logistically problematic, and declined to do so.

By the same token, I cannot tell you how many people have told me that I should just pop down on the train from Berlin to Vienna for the day. When I explain that the distance is in excess of 500 miles, and that excluding getting to and from train stations, the trip was still twelve hours one way, they disbelieve me, rather than alter their own uninformed beliefs.

Yes, train travel in most of the US is pretty poor. But Americans have been brainwashed (I think by our own rail advocates) to believe that train travel in Europe is easy, fast, and seamless. Well, one out of three ain’t bad. It is pretty easy. It’s not particularly seamless, and it’s not especially fast. For some reason Americans believe that distances are shorter than they are, and that bullet trains are everywhere. We think that every city in Europe is two hours by train, and four hours by plane.

Wrong on both counts. I flew into Brussels early this year, for a conference in Bruges. I shared a cab from the airport with two others (90 Euros plus tip), which took just over an hour. Those who took the train had to haul their bags onto the train (granted, the station was conveniently located in the basement of the airport), but change in Brussels Nord, and make several stops, for a journey of about two and a half hours. And it was about 45 Euros a person. Who did better here?

Many Americans suffer from the delusion that just about anything is better anywhere else in the world than where we are. Much of that is driven by constituencies with private agendas, and the rest is driven by our own belief that our systems are inadequate and underfunded. If more Americans had the opportunity to understand how things worked in other parts of the world, we would better appreciate what we had.

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