Monday, December 26, 2016

The Train for Berlin: Can Railroads Replace Planes for Long Distance Travel?

This November, I went by train from Locarno, in Switzerland, all the way to Berlin, for the conference of ASPO Germany.  The trip lasted more than 11 hours and it involved four different trains, it was the longest daytime trip by train I ever took in my life. It was one of the several tests I have been performing during the past few years to see how and how much I could avoid using planes for traveling within Europe. (Above: crossing another train in Switzerland).

There doesn't exist a sustainable fuel that can power a passenger plane; at least not at the same price and for the same performance we can obtain from fuels derived from fossil hydrocarbons. While airlines dream of impossible "green planes," we need to find something that can take people from a place to another without emitting greenhouse gases, at least over medium-long distances. Maybe, one day, we'll develop a new generation of solar powered airships but, for the time being, the good, old trains look like the best option. Trains run on electricity, so they are directly compatible with solar and wind energy. They don't even need rubber tires or bitumen for roads - both produced from fossil fuels. So, I have been experimenting for quite a while with traveling by train in Europe and let me report to you about this experience.

First: the good news. During the past few years, the development of on-line services has made enormously easier to plan a long distance train trip. The European railroads have also improved their ticket sales interface and you can now buy fully electronic tickets from one single national site for a multi-country trip. This is a big improvement. For instance, up to a few years ago, if you wanted to board a Swiss train, you had to have a physical ticket issued in a Swiss station or, if you didn't live in Switzerland, you had to have it shipped to you by mail, which was both slow and expensive.

Then, many railroad networks have now an on-board Wi-Fi system. That's a big plus because a long trip by train becomes actually a chance to do some work in holy peace - something that you can't do on a plane, where you can't even recharge your laptop (and not even open it, if you travel in economy class). In the image you see real-time travel information on a German intercity train.

Still, there is a lot of work to do to improve the service of railroads. For instance, in Switzerland, trains have no Wi-Fi (maybe because motion sickness is almost guaranteed if you travel in the Alpine region). Even in Germany, with all their hi-tech, the connection during my travel to Berlin worked only for the first half hour and then it died for the rest of the trip (and they wanted me to pay 6 euros for it!). In the picture, you can see that I was reading Epictetus on the train, a stoic philosopher who helped me survive the lack of an Internet connection! But, surely, that can be improved: in Italy, for instance, the Wi-Fi connection in the high-speed trains comes for free and it normally works very well.

Then, there remain two fundamental problems with long distance rail trips: one is that night trains are becoming an extinct breed in Europe, the other that the high-speed trains are not conceived for long distance travel.

First, sleeper trains. Theoretically, they are a very good idea: you travel overnight, while you sleep, and you arrive in the morning, ready for business or for sightseeing. This kind of trip may be considered also as something romantic if you can share the compartment with a significant other (assuming that neither of you suffers from motion sickness). Of course, sleeping in one of these trains is not the same thing as sleeping at home: the paradigm of the sleeper train is the 6-passenger compartment, hot and poorly ventilated, that can give you a feeling of what must have been like to be deported to a concentration camp during the second world war. But, even if you book a place in a single or a double compartment, the price is not unreasonably high if you think that you are saving the cost of one night at a hotel.

Unfortunately, there are big problems with sleeper trains. One is that they are old, poorly kept, and don't smell so good. In my personal experience, they are also often delayed (two hours of delay the last time I went to Paris). Then, all the romanticism of the experience goes away when, in the morning, you are served a pure cardboard croissant and a cup of coffee that looks and smells like crude oil. Apparently, the fasts of the "Orient Express" are past and forgotten. As a final outrage, I can report how, while traveling from Italy to Paris, I was awakened at 2 a.m. by the Swiss police who wanted to check my bags. Imagine that your plane from London to New York is stopped midway by the Icelandic police and made to stop in Rejkiawick so that they can check your bags!

But the main problem with sleeper trains is another one. When you arrive in the morning to your destination, you badly need a shower, but your hotel won't let you into your room before 1 p.m. (if you are lucky, some Hotels won't do that before 3 pm.). The problem is even worse with your trip back home. Your train leaves at, maybe, 11 p.m., but your hotel will unceremoniously kick you out of your room by 12 a.m. (and they can be quite nasty if you ask for an extra half-hour). Then, maybe you have some business or sightseeing in the afternoon but then you are stranded in a foreign city with your bags and with nowhere to stay except in an unappealing waiting room in a train station. No wonder that these trains seem to be disappearing from the European railroad network.

Then, there are high-speed trains; wonderful machines that could compete with planes even for relatively long trips. At a speed typically over 200 km/hour, a train could cover the ca. 1500 km from Rome to Berlin in some 6-7 hours. Of course, you should add the time for a few stops along the way and the fact that not the whole network allows for high speed. Still, you could likely make it in less than 10 hours; which is reasonable for a comfortable daytime trip, where you can relax and work while you travel. But, in practice, there is no way to get to Berlin from Rome or Florence in a single day. My train trip to Berlin started from Switzerland; it was less than 1,000 km and it took more than 11 hours; an average speed of less than 100 km/h. The reason is that I had to change three times and that involved considerable idle time in stations (image: a coffee shop in Bellinzona, Switzerland. Nice place, and they had good Italian espresso coffee, but it was a lot of lost time)

So, despite the recent improvements, there still a lot of work to do before railways can become competitive with planes in Europe. Something that could make sleeper trains more practical would be the possibility of renting rooms in hotels for half a day at a reasonable price. That makes a big difference in comfort: I remember having done that in St. Petersburg, in Russia, while waiting for the night train for Moscow. But, in Western Europe, renting a room by half-day or by the hour remains something that hotels don't want to do because they are afraid for their reputation. Things might be changing and some internet sites have appeared that offer this service for business travelers.

But the real problem with sleeper trains is that they are in direct competition with low-cost airlines and, as things stand today, trains can't just compete. Airlines offer a faster service for the same or lower prices. Only a serious carbon tax could change things and make sleeper trains competitive, but that doesn't seem to be coming fast.

The future looks more favorable for high-speed day trains. The main problem, here, seems to be related to planning. So far, national railway companies have been planning their schedules only at the national level, also because of the limited interoperability of the railway networks. In some ways, it seems that railroads are still operating as they did at the time of the first world war; when people thought that an enemy invasion could have been slowed down by making the national rail gauge different from that of neighboring countries. Different gauges in Europe still exist in Russia and in Spain and the railways operate different voltages AC and DC, varying from 750 to 25,000 volts. Also, the signaling systems vary from country to country. The result is that, for instance, high-speed Italian trains cannot run in Germany or in France, and the reverse is also true.

Nevertheless, progress is being made and the latest generation of high-speed trains is built with interoperability in mind. Soon, these trains should be able to roam the whole European network. What is lacking here, mainly, is a serious push from the European Government to convince national railroads that connecting the main European capitals by high-speed trains is important and useful. But the EU has done very little in this sense, so far. One more failure for them (they seem to collect failures as some people collect stamps or butterflies). There used to be a European Railway Agency, but something must have gone wrong with it because it was closed down and there is now a brand new European Union Agency for Railways. We can only hope they will do better than their predecessors.

So, is there hope that we'll be able to take again long travels by train in comfort and style in Europe, as it could be done in the 1930s? Could we revive the fasts of the old "Orient Express"? It is surely possible, but it will take some work and some strong political will. That will be absolutely necessary if we want to adapt European travel to the objectives of the 2015 Paris treaty. In the meantime, the most adventurous of us will still do their best to shun planes in favor of trains. (image below, the Italian FrecciaRossa high-speed train, photographed at the central station in Florence. Allow me a small display of national pride if I say that it is the best train I have ever traveled on - expensive, though!)


  1. Hello,

    Maybe the problem with planes is that they allow to travel long distances for short periods, it is possible to go from London to Berlin just for a business meeting in the afternoon. Since so many people do such kind of trips, airtravel has been able to grow enough to provide competitive travel cost per person and railroads are not able to compete. I believe that the low cost offers for non professional people is mainly created to keep the system working during the week-end. As long as this system continues, I don't think that trains will be competitive. Since I am not an insider, this is just an hypotesys.
    The solution would be very easy, the european states could just stop supporting airports, but this is really impossible in our actual situation, airports are too important for business.

    Best regards,


    1. I know people who can take a plane from London to Hong-Kong. Stay there for a two-hour business meeting, and then fly back. Which is, of course, sheer madness. Doing that from London to Berlin and back is a little less mad, but still, in my opinion, it makes little sense. In my experience, business meetings are events where you spend time telling other people what they already know. It makes sense to meet your coworkers in an international project if you stay with them for some extended time. But if you appear, show your slides, and then disappear, then you might as well do that from home. Or so I think.

  2. "Then, many railroad networks have now an on-board Wi-Fi system. That's a big plus because a long trip by train becomes actually a chance to do some work in holy peace - something that you can't do on a plane, where you can't even recharge your laptop. (Image: real-time travel information on a German intercity train: it worked beautifully, although only for half an hour)"

    This is not accurate. Alaska Airlines provides plug-ins to keep your electronics charged up and Wi-Fi to connect to the net while in-flight. Trains have no fundamental advantage in this area.


    1. This is not accurate. Alaska Airlines provides plug-ins to keep your electronics charged up and Wi-Fi to connect to the net while in-flight. Trains have no fundamental advantage in this area.

      I don't think so -- trains have the major advantage that you can actually use a laptop. I am quite tall, which means that the only times that I have ever been able to open a laptop on an airplane have been on the rare occasions when I get the front row seat or when the seat next to me is empty and I can turn sideways.

      Otherwise it is physically impossible for me to both open the laptop and actually see the screen because of how close the seat in front is. Unless you are below average height and you use a laptop with a tiny screen I have hard time seeing what benefit the plug-in and the Wi-Fi is to you.

      I often have hard time reading on a tablet too because there isn't really much space for that either.

      This is without even going into how much my knees hurt throughout the whole flight.

  3. Also Ugo, have you ever done a calculation of comparative energy usage for trains versus planes? Trains are much bigger and heavier, and if they have a bunch of stops to make they have to accelerate and decelerate into each stop. You also have all that electricity you need to run on the third rail, and there is power loss along the way due to resistance.

    I rode the inter-rail in Europe 3 times and it was a lot of fun, at least in the 70s and 80s. I spent many nights sleeping on trains because I didn't have to buy a hotel room or hostel. However, for a Bizman or Academic who needs to look spiffy for a Power Point Presentation on Climate Change, not too good.

    Then, if you are going to upgrade this whole network to high speed rail, you have 1000s of miles of track that need to be upgraded, because you can't run a train that does 300 mph on tracks that are designed for 80 mph max. The sucker will derail on the first curve. Then you gotta build an entirely new fleet of high speed trains. How much embedded energy i involved in that?

    Basically, it's a pipe dream.


    1. I think you are missing Bardi's main point. It is possible to run trains on renewable sources of electricity, regardless of kWh/passenger mile. As Bardi also indicated in his post, trains will not compete economically with planes for distance travel as long as the cost of carbon pollution is zero.

      But yes, it's still a pipe dream. Conversion of the world economy, including trains, to renewable energy will not happen in time to prevent collapse. Even so, I find it hard to fault people for trying, even though I would rather see the money spent on moving people out of cities and onto small farms.

    2. Exactly my point, Joe, thanks for this comment. I added a line to the text to explain the concept better

    3. Even if you ran the trains off solar panels, you still have all the track and all the cement that needs to be poured to upgrade for high speed rail. In many areas you would need a new right of way because the turns have too tight a radius for HS rail. Then there is all the embedded energy in a new fleet of cars. Then you have all the maintenance on the rail lines, clearing off snow in winter from miles of track, etc.

      Besides that, if you really could generate all the energy you need from renewable PV sources, you could use that energy to synthesize liquid fuel for your planes from a renewable source like algae or sedge grass. This would be carbon neutral.

    4. At present, virtually all transportation, except electrified rail and sailboats, uses liquid fuel for energy. Assuming that all energy comes from carbon neutral sources, the best place to use that energy first for transportation is with those modes that already use it, like rail.

      We seem to be stuck with cars in our transportation mix, so they should also be electrified. Rail can substitute for freight trucks, but a lot more track and sidings would be needed. Trucking freight with diesel is just another example of a dead-end mode of transport that we stupidly succumbed to. We should have seen the end of liquid fuels coming and stuck with rail.

      Using electricity to synthesize liquid fuel would be energetically and economically expensive. Agricultural machinery would probably get first use, with maritime shipping second (to supplement sail). The last place it would be used would be for air travel.

    5. If you are going to talk sailboats, you might as well add horseback to transportation systems. You couldn't possibly move current volumes of freight with sailboats.

      Electrified carz still require roads, these are even more costly and energy intensive to maintain than rail track. Besides that is all the mining of Li to make all those batteries for all those carz.

      The bottom line here is this level of technology is going the way of the dinosaur, solar PV will not make up the difference. It's pure hopium.

    6. Apparently trains are at present only slightly more efficient than planes, if the data is to be believed (this is measured in energy per passenger-distance):

      However, the airline industry have been under intense competitive pressure to reduce costs for decades, which has driven continuous efficiency improvements over time.

      The same is not true for trains.

      Also, if planes were reserved for transoceanic trips and most intracontinental traffic was redirected to trains, as is the sensible thing to do, the efficiency of trains would probably rise significantly because of the many more people who would be using them.

    7. RE, apparently you like horses better than trains, which is perfectly fine. But, if you are interested, I can tell you that I am working on a project sponsored by a big foundry specialized in making rails for high speed trains. They are discarding their old blast furnace, replacing it with an electric furnace. Clean and efficient. So, you see, trains can still run if we have electric power. But using that electric power to make synfuels out of atmospheric CO2 would be pure madness: not impossible, but too expensive.


    1. But that numbers use actual mix. Train use only electricity. Altough less consumption is desired, it is better is you can compete in speed with plane, because the travel time is one of the most important reasons to choose a plain travel.
      Even if the train would consumed the same amount of energy or generate the same CO2 with the actual mix, with a renewable mix there will be no emissions, so the emissions goes down fast with the renewable transformation of the electricity mix.

  5. hight speed train energy cost

  6. Ugo

    I think one obstacle to maintaining good rail service IS the fashion for high speed rail. Speed is expensive, double it and you need four times as much power, which means heavier catenary, power conversion equipment and motors , heavier and more expensive railbed and beyond a certain speed lower line capacity because of longer safety intervals between trains.

    Theres also the problem of lines exclusively for passenger traffic, losing freight traffic increases the passenger ticket price.

    The problem of rail freight must be considered since that too must be removed from the highways and airplanes.

    I think to many resources are spent on speed while the rest of the network is left to decay. A luxury service for buisines travel is no solution to transport problems. What is required is an efficient network for passengers and freight, not a few prestige lines for passengers alone.

    On the problem of stopovers, why not have capsule hotels in the train stations themselves?

    1. I agree. The bottom line is that all modern transportation systems are ultimately unsustainable given imminent contraction and resource depletion. I'd love to see more thinking and research into TRULY sustainable transportation and what it would look like. Solar arrays that feed batteries that could power a battery-assist bicycle. Ride it down to a small, local train service? Relocalization of our way of life is coming one way or another. I just want the adjustment to be thoughtful, and peaceful!

      Western Oregon, USA

    2. In Europe, I saw capsule hotels only in airports, not in or near train stations. Maybe they will become fashionable, in the future. Who knows?

  7. I live in the UK where the privatisation of the train operators remains contentious, however our railway is growing strongly vis-a-vis most of Europe. I am a great believer that market liberalisation can reverse the fortunes of the European intercity network. Not just because many of ideas in your piece to add value might get implemented. The money-men that run our trains are much better lobbyists for rail investment than British rail ever was!

    I would also like to hear the opinions of somebody who has made similar trips in China. Their network is superbly planned and presumably dominates trips of similar length to that which Ugo writes about!

  8. Regarding one of your metaphors, this link might serve to englighten: .

  9. I am not a big supporter of very high speed trains (>200 km/h), because of the investment necessary and the higher energy use. As long as our electric energy does not come from renewable sources, it is a good thing to save it, and even then, energy has to be used for many other purposes, too.
    Aside from internet connections not working (which is a problem comparatively cheap to solve), I would support Ugo in that a better organization and merging together of national railway systems would yield the biggest benefit.

  10. I've been told by the family I work for that I may travel for free, by plane, as one of their number is a flight attendant.

    I will still travel by train if I possibly can.

  11. Regarding "sailboats" for freight:
    The "oil embargo" of the 1970's resulted in a study of the practicality of sail-powered freight transport by the late Prof Harry Benford at the University of Michigan, College of Engineering, Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. The conclusion, published after the embargo ended, was that sail would already be practical for shipment of... petroleum! (From the Middle East to the US.)
    It was a strictly preliminary investigation. I read of the study; I did not read the report. But considering the status of Prof Benford, it should not be taken lightly.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)