2011 December

I Used to Love Trains

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I used to love trains, in secret I think that I became an architect because I spent so much time building infrastructure for my model railway set, as a kid. Having watched trains crawl along at the speed of slow freight, in my 10 years in the US, I moved back to Europe and was excited by the prospect of regularly using a truly high speed rail network.

Then I actually used it.

A train on France’s TGV from where I live, in Geneva, to Paris takes a mere 3 hours, it is by far the best way to get there. But it costs almost double what a flight does. If I want to use the Swiss network it’s more, and if I want to combine two networks, say by taking the train to Berlin via Basel (which I have done, when flights were delayed by snow) then not only does it take a full day, but the idiosyncratic differences between providers means that the complexity is several orders of magnitude higher than a multi-point plane flight. Ticketing for the TGV is worse, positively Byzantine. There are no print-out tickets, let alone iPhone barcodes, you have to pick up or have a cardboard ticket delivered.

So what’s going on, why is state subsidized, cheap, electric powered transport more expensive than for profit air travel at a time when gas prices are high? This is not just a function of competitive efficiency, although that is part of it, (SNCF went on strike, for example, to prevent freight running on the TGV network), in the UK privatized rail has created prices that are even worse.

The problem is the infrastructure itself. When you fly a plane there is no track required, the infrastructure investment is only at the nodes, and the decentralization of these nodes by low cost airlines in Europe, has driven prices down and broken down the stranglehold of the large airport authorities. On a rail network there is a massive cost for the rails themselves that creates less competition so privatization means monopoly capitalism.

So why isn’t the same true of the road network? That requires massive infrastructure and in France the road network is possibly the most free-market driven infrastructure in the world with private toll freeways operated by companies in places like Dubai. The French road network is ironically far more capitalist than America’s. But it isn’t the nature of the ownership of the infrastructure but the nature of the network itself that determines its character. Railways can only pack a very few number of trains on at one time and there are few exits or stops. Roads have many vehicles like little packets of transport. The road network is like a packet switched one, like the Internet whereas the rail Network is like the legacy, fixed line, monopolistic telephone system.

But at least trains are green, like the nuclear generated electricity that powers the TGV.