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The Amazing Race, Episode 3 (26 September 2001)

Paris (France) - TGV Méditerranée (France) - Les Baux de Provence (France)

Have We Missed the Train?

The key events in this week’s episode of “The Amazing Race” on CBS-TV are a footrace through the sewers of Paris, and a train trip from Paris to a scenic village in the south of France.

Since I’m sure your journeys will involve wading through sewage…. Well, on second thought, let’s talk about trains.

All of the racers scored pretty high on basic European train travel skills. To start with, they all figured out that the train would be faster than flying for a 300 mile journey. Obvious to most Europeans, but not to many Americans.

Next, all the racers made it to the correct station, the Gare de Lyon. Like many cities around the world, Paris has multiple stations for trains on different lines in different directions.

Then they all got on the right train, the TGV (“Train à Grand Vitesse”, or “High Speed Train”) Méditerranée toward Marseille via Avignon. There was some worry by those who were lagging, and didn’t make the first train. But as is usually the case on European main lines, the trains were frequent enough that having to waiting for the next train wasn’t decisive in the order of arrival at the day’s destination.

Enough for now about the racers. If you want lots more good advice on European rail travel, see my fellow Avalon Travel Publishing author Rick Steves’ Guide to European Railpasses and Rail Travel

What about us, back in the USA? Will we ever get trains like this? Certainly not unless the federal government commits at least a fraction of the subsidies it gives air and road travel to the development of passenger rail infrastructure.

But won’t high-speed trains be terribly expensive? In a word, no.

Last Friday, Congress voted, and the President immediately signed into law, US$15 billion in grants and loans to airlines, plus an unlimited additional amount in assumption of liability for lawsuits against the airlines (i.e. the government will pay for damages, without limit, that the courts find to be the fault of the airlines and for which the airlines hadn’t purchased sufficient insurance coverage). Tens of billions of dollars in other subsidies to the airline industry are included in law enforcement, security, and and anti-terrorism appropriations.

By comparison, the proposed High Speed Rail Investment Act (Senate bill S.250 and House bill H.R.2329), would provide a total of US$12 billion to Amtrak — over the next 10 years. Keeping Amtrak running will cost taxpayers much less than preserving current levels of short-haul air service.

Exotic (and costly) high-speed rail technologies like magnetic levitation get much of the attention paid to rail transportation. Many people in the USA — especially those who haven’t ridden Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor lately — mistakenly think that only state-of-the-art railroads can compete with airlines. But that’s simply not true.

Ordinary high-speed rail — overhead wires, electric motors, and steel wheels on steel rails — is well-established, proven, mature technology. The 125 miles/hour Metroliner trains in the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston predate the formation of Amtrak in 1971. The 300 km/hour (200 miles/hour) French TGV carried its first paying passenger 27 September 1981; it’s been in continuous service, as of today, for exactly 20 years. Amtrak’s 150 miles/hour Acela trains, which started service in 2000, are based on the TGV design. High-speed rail is nothing new, and doesn’t depend on anything cutting-edge or that hasn’t been tested and proven in decades of operation in the USA and abroad.

Half the airline flights in the USA are shorter than the 300 miles of this week’s leg of “The Amazing Race” — which was, you’ll recall, faster by rail than by air. So if trains in the USA were as good as those in France, we’d only need half as many flights. That, in turn, would reduce airport congestion, pollution, and other environmental impacts of air travel.

With check-in times now at least two hours before departure for domestic flights in the USA, as a result of new security procedures, Amtrak is already clearly faster from city center to city center than the New York-Boston or New York-Washington air shuttles (each about 200 miles).

The busiest air corridor in the USA is slightly longer, between the San Francisco Bay area and Southern California. The majority of flights at Bay Area airports are corridor flights, and there are so many of them that there is heavy pressure to landfill and pave a square mile of San Francisco Bay for more runways. High-speed rail could be an alternative, but only with political and financial support from both the federal and California state governments.

Amtrak ridership has soared in recent weeks, and many Amtrak trains have been sold out. Coach seats on Amtrak are larger and have more legroom than most business-class airline seats. There are no middle seats — all seating is, at most, two-by-two. Acela and Metroliner trains have power outlets at every seat for laptop computers or other gadgets, and have optional facing “conference table” seating for en route business meetings or card games. And you’re allowed to use your mobile phone on the train (although some trains have designated phone-free “quiet cars”).

Surveys show most people in the USA would prefer to take trains if they were as fast as flying for short journeys.

So if you want to have more trains in the USA like the French TGV, join and support the National Association of Railroad Passengers and tell Congress and your state legislature to stop subsidizing only air and road travel, and give Amtrak its fair share of funding. Now, before it’s too late.

The quote of the week for “The Amazing Race” once again is from Margaretta: “I want our grandkids to have the same love of adventure we have.” Each week’s eliminated couple has been more enthusiastic about travel than the last, and even more eager to keep on traveling. This week, after being eliminated from the race, Brenda and Pat sounded like anything but “losers”. The trip is, they say, “Something else to add to our memoirs… and we’re going to have more.” Go get ‘em, girls!

See you next week in the south of France. (Hmmm… Maybe I should take a European vacation, while airfares are cheap?)

Bon voyage!

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