Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The Amazing Race 32, Episode 6

Paris (France) - Berlin (Germany) - Almaty (Qazaqstan)

The first challenge for the contestants on this double episode of The Amazing Race, starting out from Paris after midnight, was to figure out the fastest way to get to Berlin, by train, in the middle of the night.

Given the quality of trains and the density of high-speed rail networks throughout Europe but especially in France and Germany, you might expect that the capitals and largest cities of France and Germany would be linked by frequent, fast, direct trains. But even in the daytime, there are no through trains from Paris to Berlin. There are connections between the French and German rail systems via Brussels-Liège-Aachen, Saarbrücken-Mannheim, or Strasbourg. All of these routes between Paris and Berlin require at least one change of trains, and many including some of those with the shortest total journey times involve two or more changes.

Rail development underwritten by national governments has naturally been focused on domestic routes. There are surprisingly few through international trains in Europe, and even fewer high-speed ones.

What about night trains? With the minor exception of gamblers wanting to maximize their time at the tables in Las Vegas, few people want to depart (and even fewer want to arrive) anywhere in the middle of the night. But even if there were no trains originating from Paris after midnight, might there have been a train coming through from e.g. Madrid to Germany that stopped in Paris in the middle of the night?

In the USA, by way of comparative example, there is little demand for trains leaving even a city as big as New York in the middle of the night. But because the overnight trains between Boston and Washington make intermediate stops in New York City, there are 2:00 a.m. departures from New York in both directions — the only Amtrak departures from New York between midnight and 5 a.m.

Very few trains pass through Paris at any hour, however. Most trains serving the French capital terminate at a ring of stations serving destinations in different directions: the Gare du Nord, Gare de l’Est, Gare de Lyon (South), and so forth. Moreover, there are no through trains from Madrid even as far as Paris, much less to points further north or east, and no night trains from Paris to Germany.

Sadly, the growth of national high-speed rail networks and low-fare European regional airlines has been accompanied by the near-total elimination of European overnight trains. Night trains were most popular for journeys too long to complete in a day. As high-speed trains reduced journey times, railways found that most people prefer to schedule shorter train journeys during the day, not at night, and take planes — if they can afford it — for any journey too long to complete in a day by train. France and Germany both eliminated all overnight domestic trains, such as those that formerly connected Paris to the French Riviera, once they had build up comprehensive national high-speed rail systems capable of getting travellers anywhere within each of their respective countries in less than a day.

The few remaining overnight trains serving Germany were through trains to and from Austria operated by the Austrian national railway, ÖBB, which had been left as the largest remaining operator of overnight passenger night trains in Europe, under the “Nightjet” brand. (I was on one of their trains a few years ago from Amsterdam via Germany to Vienna, sharing a quite comfortable compartment with two Chinese college students on a hasty grand tour of Europe during their winter holidays from a university in the Netherlands.)

The good news — and this really is good news for those who will be travelling after the current pandemic — is that, while the renversement didn’t happen in time to benefit the contestants in this season of The Amazing Race filmed in 2018, there is now solid and growing consensus and political and financial commitment by European governments to the restoration of better-integrated pan-European passenger rail services including a renewed transcontinental network of overnight sleeping-car trains.

Even before the pandemic, flight shaming about the effect of air travel on global warming was already ratcheting up pressure on European politicians for better and more integrated international rail services for journeys across and throughout more of Europe, to replace medium-distance intra-European flights. Train travellers can thank Greta Thunberg and the Green Parties. Fear of flying during the pandemic (although it’s not clear when or if taking a train is more or less dangerous than flying) and a desire by those who are travelling by train for private compartments have stepped up the pressure for longer-distance and overnight passenger trains.

European national governments and the European Union have responded with an array of policy and investment initiatives. Germany, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and hopes to take a central road in European rail systems, has put forward a strategy proposal for a network of international high-speed rail corridors across Europe, and has gotten 24 European countries to endorse a call for development of better passenger rail services as part of the European Green Deal.

Meanwhile, Austria — long a cultural, political, and transportation intermediary between Eastern and Western (and Northern and Southern) Europe — isn’t ready to abandon its current leading role as a provider of trans-European sleeping-car services. ÖBB has just spent half a billion Euros on more new sleeping cars to expand its night-train network, including planned services as far west as Paris. ÖBB’s plans including a future Paris-Berlin night train, although perhaps not until 2028. Some service frequencies may be cut back temporarily during the pandemic, but the more important positive consequences of the decisions being made now, under the conscientizing influence of the pandemic, will be felt later, and be more lasting.

In addition to investments in rails, signalling systems, and rolling stock, the German proposal includes much-needed EU-level initiatives to promote coordination of cross-border schedules, connections, reservations, and through ticketing — projects ideally suited to EU agendas for harmonization and and integration of the “internal market”.

Some of this is already incorporated, at least aspirationally, in EU passenger rail regulations approved last month. The new rules standardize passenger rights, encourage through interline booking and ticketing, and require space to be provided for bicycles on all new or renovated passenger rail cars. The effects of this last change won’t be fully felt for years, but it will gradually lower the barriers posed by cars designed without bike spaces to using trains as your “sag wagon” and to other sorts of intermodal bicycle/train journeys within Europe.

It’s ironic, of course, that this is being done now in order to make train travel a better alternative to air travel. Interline ticketing and other provisions for through passenger transport across borders (in Europe) and between private companies (in the USA) were developed first, in the 19th century, for rail travel. These interoperability schemes and standards were essential to transcontinental rail travel across either the USA or Europe. There has never been a through passenger train across the US. Even today on Amtrak, a cross-country journey requires a change of trains in Chicago or New Orleans, with the eastern and western portions of the journey operated over the tracks of different railroads. And of course travel across Europe required cars to to be be carried across national borders and shunted between trains operated by different national railways. Passengers on the classic Wagon-Lits sleeping cars and some other through services didn’t have to disembark or change cars en route, but through cars had to be switched from one train to another, and customs inspectors came through the cars to carry out border formalities en route.

For the next leg of their journey, the contestants on The Amazing Race 32 had to fly from Berlin to Almaty, Qazaqstan (formerly Kazakhstan). The Almaty airport, IATA code ALA, is still the same one my Aeroflot flight landed at in 1992, in the midst of the transition to Qazak independence. Like a Paris-Berlin train, a Berlin-Almaty flight seems a natural — but doesn’t exist. It looked like the racers all connected through Frankfurt, although Istanbul, Moscow, or Vienna would also have been possibilities with a single change of planes. (Austrian Airlines isn’t a large airline and has few long-haul flights, but it was the first “Western” airline to start flying to Qazaqstan after that country’s independence. An acquaintance of mine was the first Austrian Airlines station manager in Almaty in the early 1990s.)

Why would anyone expect there to be a direct flight between Berlin and Almaty? After World War II, a sizeable number of ethnic German “displaced persons” including some former POWs captured by Soviet forces were relocated to the the steppes of Qazaqstan as part of the Stalinist “virgin lands” program. During the Soviet period, they were able to maintain closer ties with relatives in East Germany than with those across the Iron Curtain in West Germany. After independence, Qazaqstan was initially eager to attract foreign investment, and Germans with family ties to Qazaqstan were more willing to consider joint ventures with Qazak partners than most other Europeans. From the Qazak point of view at that time, Germans were less hated or feared than the Russians whose colonial rule of Central Asia was being thrown off. The first flight to Western Europe by Air Kazakhstan — formerly the Kazakhstan operating division of Aeroflot — was to Frankfurt.

But why to Frankfurt, and not Berlin? Berlin is by far the larger city, and the capital. And as noted above, more of the Germans with closer ties to relatives in Qazakstan were in the former East Germany, closer to Berlin than Frankfurt.

Frankfurt, however, was and is the larger air hub. Flights from Almaty to Frankfurt offered connections to anywhere in the Western world, which a flight to Berlin wouldn’t have done in 1992 and still wouldn’t today. During the Cold War, while NATO and the US helped underwrite steady expansion of the Frankfurt airport, flights to the West Berlin airport (Tegel, TXL) were strictly limited, and flights from the East Berlin airport (Schönefeld, SXF) served mainly other friendly socialist countries although there were direct flights on Interflug (the East German national airline) and other airlines from SXF to places as far west as Havana, Cuba (HAV) and as far east as Pyongyang, North Korea (FNJ). Frankfurt retained its status as the de facto German national air gateway for decades after German reunification, despite the German government’s continual efforts to encourage more direct international flights to and from Berlin.

The centerpiece of these efforts was the construction of a new airport to replace SXF, whose no-frills ex-DDR facilities had been used mainly, after reunification, by no-frills low-fare airlines including as the hub for Air Berlin. (Air Berlin was one of the better low-fare airlines, in my experience including at SXF, but it has since gone bankrupt and been liquidated.)

Many major international airlines had plans to start new long-haul flights to Berlin as soon as the new airport opened. In the meantime, close-in TXL was overwhelmingly overcrowded, with neither gates nor landing slots available for new routes. The last time I flew out of TXL, the waiting area at the “gate” for my Air Canada flight to Toronto was in a tent-like temporary structure. And no airline wanted to invest in upgrading facilities at SXF that would have to be abandoned with the switch to the new airport. As long as a new and improved airport was supposedly “just around the corner”, plans for almost all new flights to and from any Berlin airport were on hold.

But the opening of the new “Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport” (BER) was delayed, again and again, by a series of scandals and technical fiascos that shocked and embarassed all of Germany. When BER handled its first flights last month, it was almost a decade behind the original schedule and almost US$5 billion (4 billion Euros) over budget. At that, the opening was only possible because the pandemic has so reduced traffic that only one of the three terminals needed to be made ready for operation, and at much less than its planned capacity.

The Amazing Race appears to have had the support of the government for filming this leg in Qazakstan. That cooperation may have come, as does filming in many countries, at an explicit or implicit price. Whether out of wisdom or necessity, the producers of this episode of “reality” television showed viewers almost nothing about the reality of contemporary Qazakstan.

The closest we got to a clue about Qazakstan today was the site of the finish line for this episode, “First Presidents’s Park”, a colonnaded monument to Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nursultan Nazarbayev is one of those Central Asian politicians who managed the transition from Soviet rule to independence seamlessly (albeit with some behind-the-scenes power plays and street-level suppression of both Islamists and would-be democrats), changing the name on his office door from “First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic” to “President of Kazakhstan” and continuing to hold that position for almost thirty more years. The contestants on The Amazing Race visited a film studio best known for costume dramas set in the time of Genghis Khan. Part of the reality of post-Soviet Central Asia, unfortunately, is the extent to which post-independence politicians have tried to model their behavior and their public images on those of the historic Khans.

It didn’t take long after Qazak independence before the oil money began flowing from a massive joint venture with the US company Chevron into Qazak sovereign wealth funds and Qazak kleptocrats’ Swiss bank accounts. As that happened, Nazarbayev and his cronies became more and more focused on asserting their power and reimagining the nation on their own terms, and less and less concerned with currying favor with the “international community”. Among the moves made to break with the legacy of Tsarist and then Soviet Russian domination was the construction of a new capital city on the steppes, essentially in the middle of nowhere, at a town known in Qazak as “Akmola” and in Russian as “Tselinograd”. The city was renamed “Astana”, although the airport code remained TSE. Twenty-five years later, the population of the new capital city has grown to more than a million people.

In 2017, Nazarbayev issued a Presidential decree (that’s how he ruled) changing the official spelling of the country’s name in the Latin alphabet from Kazakhstan to “Qazakstan”. That’s not as strange a spelling as it might seem: The “Q” in “Qazakstan” is pronounced with a “K” sound similar to that of the Arabic “Q” in Qatar or qat.

In 2019, Nazarbayev stepped down as President for unspecified reasons, although he retained several other official titles including “Leader of the Nation”. To show his continued loyalty to Nazarbayev, his successor announced at his swearing-in as President that he was renaming the capital city yet again, this time in Nursultan Nazarbayev’s honor, from Astana to “Nur-Sultan”. Those few residents of the city who dared to hold a public protest of the name change, and at least one journalist who tried to report on the protest, were all immediately arrested, as were larger numbers who tried to protest the election held to confirm the Presidential succession. I’ve been unable to find any follow-up reports on what happened to those arrested — cause for concern in light of the frequency of mistreatment of dissidents and prisoners in Qazakstan.

Changes of city names aren’t that unusual, but the next step was unprecedented. In June 2020, just a year after the official name change of the city, the government of Qazakstan succeeded in getting IATA to change the official code for the existing airport from the already-archaic “TSE” to “NQZ” for “Nur-Sultan, Qazakstan”. Once assigned, IATA airport codes normally remain fixed. The airport in St. Petersburg is still “LED”, almost thirty years after all the Lenin statues came down in what used to be Leningrad. The airport in Mumbai is still “BOM” (Bombay), the airport in Chennai remains “MAA” (Madras), and so forth. I don’t know of any IATA airport code that has been changed except when the airport had been so completely rebuilt that it could be designated as a new airport, even if it was on the same site (as with the change in Berlin from SXF to BER). Qazakstan somehow succeeded where other countries have failed. “NQZ” is now being programmed into airline reservation and ticketing systems and all their layers of user interfaces and APIs around the world.

There are flights on Air Astana (with Lufthansa codeshare flight numbers) between QZM and FRA — but still not between anywhere in Qazakstan and any airport in Berlin. An eventual post-pandemic BER-Qazakstan flight seems likely, but it’s unclear if it will be BER-QZM or BER-ALA.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 18 November 2020, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

On my 70-day Europe trip in 2011, in which I traveled exclusively by rail, circumstances sometimes dictated an overnight train (Copenhagen to Berlin in a 6-person sleeper, Prague to Vienna in a 4-person sleeper, and Venice to Naples in a 2-person sleeper with my dad).

The trip to Berlin had us in specific cars because at some point the cars would be decoupled and routed to other trains going points east, west, and south once we crossed the water by boat from Sweden into Germany. Glad I was in the right car!

My first Amazing Race type moment was when I was trying to take a direct train from Paris to Amsterdam, but I neglected to make a reservation and they wouldn't let me on the train in Paris. So I had to go back upstairs and purchase a reservation on a new ride, and I requested basically "I just want whatever train gets me to Amsterdam the soonest" (and ended up switching trains in Lille and Antwerp).

Posted by: MRG, 20 November 2020, 20:16 ( 8:16 PM)

@MRG - Thanks for your comments. There are fewer overnight trains in Europe today than there were in 2011, but they are coming back. I talked about the significance of Lille as a high-speed rail hub (the junction of the high-speed lines to London, Paris, and Brussels) here:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 21 November 2020, 19:19 ( 7:19 PM)
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