Train a Grande Vitesse

It’s not often that I give the French credit for anything other than their wine, but this is too good to ignore: A new train with a 250,000- horsepower engine and special wheels has broken the world speed record for conventional trains. Reaching 357.2 miles per hour on a 125-mile run between Paris and Strasbourg, the bullet train is exceeded in speed only by Japan’s magnetic levitating train. (Read the AP story.)

Maybe the romance of the rails is suspending my capacity for critical thinking, but I think it would be surpassingly cool to link major East Coast cities in the United States with rail like this — even if it means importing the technology from one of the most anti-American countries on the planet. The speeds would be competitive with short airplane trips — and they could drop off passengers in city centers rather than airports on the metropolitan periphery. Think about it — from downtown Richmond to downtown Washington, downtown Norfolk or downtown Raleigh in less than an hour!

Of course, I have absolutely no idea what it would cost to upgrade the rail lines to accommodate such a train — the number is probably frighteningly high. But it might make a good long-term investment if we consider the projected rates of increase in electricity vs. aviation fuel. Electricity has its drawbacks, as I’ve blogged here frequently, but I’ll take a home-grown coal- and nuclear-powered energy source over an imported fuel dependent upon the vagaries of international politics any day. The usual caveat applies: All such projects must offer a competitive Return on Investment compared to other potential transportation projects.

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7 responses to “Train a Grande Vitesse”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Your are such a romantic, but so am I when it comes to rails. Alas, it is for naught.
    When Amtrak tried a fast train on its highly-traveled Northeastern Corridor, they had tons of problems with switching and old rails than haven’t had major upgrades in years. The Acela was stymied for months with problems and never has reached its potential.
    Nothing is going to happen until government (!?) puts money into a fast train system, which is exactly what France is done. The big railroads like Norfolk Southern and CSX and Union Pacific are entirely freight-based and profit driven and don’t give a whit about passengers, not with Wall Street crawling down their throat every quarter.
    Once again the key is GOVERNMENT spending. (Let me repeat that for James Atticus Bowden — GOVERNMENT spending. That’s why flying Air France is such a nicer experience these days than flying a U.S. carrier. State subsidies are the reason.


  2. Groveton Avatar


    Time for all Americans to drop this anti-France rhetoric. France is not one of the most anti-American counties on the planet. That kind of talk may play well with politicians (in both countries) but it holds no sway with people who do business in France. Nor should it.

    The French have been our allies for 225+ years and are still our allies today.

    If you’re looking for anti-American countries go anywhere other than Israel in the Middle East – especially our “friends” in Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Try almost anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Try Venezuela.

    French politicians are a pain in the butt with the rhetoric they use about French culture and the perils of “Americanization”. Most American politicians are clowns too in my opinion. However, the French people are fine just like the American people are fine.

    In fact, if our government was really so anti-French they should never have allowed Alcatel to merge with (buy?) Lucent (which is the current owner of what was most of Bell Labs).

    On the train front – you are right. They are a blast to ride. As far as I’m concerned, the only way to get from Paris to London or visa-versa is through the chunnel on a train. Ditto for Tokyo to most major cities in Japan. Ditto from Rome to Naples. Well, you get the point.

    I have a bit of a difference of opinion with Anon 4:29 – I think the Acela is fine. I ride it from DC to New York often and I’d never fly to Philadelphia. It may not be living up to its potential but it’s a whole lot better than the airline alternative.

    I agree with Anon 4:29 about foreign-flag airlines vs. US-flag airlines. I think the problem has a lot to do with neglect from the FAA in providing effective route based competition. If you want to go from DC to Chicago, SF, LA or Denver you’d better be ready to fly United. If you want to go to Dallas you’re going to fly American. Both airlines have serious customer service problems.

    However, if you want to go to Frankfurt you have a choice. And guess what? These same US-flag airlines have newer, better equipment and better customer service. Why? Because it’s not a route monopoly. Lufthansa still kicks them up one side of the street and down the other but at least the US-based airlines try on the European routes. They don’t even do that on their monopolized domestic routes.

  3. Gold_h2o Avatar

    Groveton –

    I agree w/ you on the train ride to Philly & New York…’s the best way to go.

    But, I have a few questions for you or anyone else who has any knowledge about the trains in Europe (I have never been there).

    1)How do you get to your final destination in Europe or Japan….take a cab, rent a car, ride a bus?

    2) What makes the train so appealing…time, cost, station locations?

    3) Do the trains in Europe make a profit…who owns/runs them, the govn’t or a private company?

    Thanks in advance.

  4. NoVA Scout Avatar
    NoVA Scout

    The French do many things very well, and not just pastries.

    I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe over the past 40 years – even lived in France for a while – and have watched the train system evolve (and devolve) over that time. Because most of Europe went rail crazy in the mid-19th century, there was an excellent rail infrastructure connecting any town of any size to a network by the time the automobile came on the scene. To put it in some recognizable frame of reference, if Virginia were France in 1967, I could get on a train in Blacksburg and travel relatively quickly and inexpensively to Falls Church (and have a choice of two or three trains a day). Even in tiny towns there was usually a spur where a two-coach omnibus would run you up the line to a terminus for one of the trunk lines. Although automobiles came in at about the same time and pace as in the United States, their function was for local travel and commerce – if one wanted to go any distance, one took the train. The rails in all the major European continental countries were state-owned and viewed as infrastructure much as we view highways today. Every major capital had three or four majestic stations where the “grand lines” came together. Most of the major airports in Europe now have high-speed rail stations right on the airport property. So one can, for example, arrive by plane in Paris or Amsterdam Schipol, walk or shuttle to the train station and find yourself on a 150mph train within 20 or 30 miuntes of picking up your luggage.

    France and Europe have many of the same policy discussion we have here, althought the statist approach to running big projects is still strongly engrained. France’s investment in the TGV (high-speed) trains has had some interesting effects. A lot of big city dwellers (particularly Paris) use the TGV network (which is intelligently sited) to take weekend jaunts to little country properties at distances they never could have covered in the past. I have friends in Paris who have weekend homes in Brittany near Vannes and Quimper (you can look it up). It would make no sense to drive there for a weekend, but they hop on the TGV late Friday afternoon, are at Vannes in three hours, keep an old beater car parked near the station (and they have some Zipcar-like services) and are off to rest and seclusion in time for a fashionably late dinner at home. Taxis are a standard part of village, town, and city transport, so you can always get around once you get someplace. City dwellers put up with less space and much more apartment living because they know they can blow town very conveniently come “le Weekend.”

    In short, the trains are comfortable, run frequently, are generally priced to be competitive with driving (fuel costs are much higher there) and very fast. There is a lot of policy talk about privatizing elements of the rail system, and I suspect that if you isolate segments of the rail system in the major countries, the passenger elements are not “profitable.” The policy judgment seems to be that those public accounting losses are offset by significant public benefits.

    We couldn’t even begin to replicate the French system here. They had the advantage of being able to incrementally upgrade long-existing roadbeds and they maintained pretty much their entire pre-WWII right-of-ways and roadbeds. You’d have to almost start from scratch here to replicate their system. Thus, it makes sense to concentrate on dense corridors like Washington (or perhaps even Richmond)/Boston, Miami/Orlando/Tampa/Jacksonville and San Diego/LA/San Francisco. Air requires far less money in ground installations than rail (particularly if new track and right-of-ways have to be acquired)

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    “On the train front – you are right. They are a blast to ride. As far as I’m concerned, the only way to get from Paris to London or visa-versa is through the chunnel on a train. Ditto for Tokyo to most major cities in Japan. Ditto from Rome to Naples. Well, you get the point.”

    You have obviously traveled far more than I have. My European train experience is very limited.

    “I think the Acela is fine. I ride it from DC to New York often and I’d never fly to Philadelphia.”

    Agreed. You’d have to be nuts to fly to Philadelphia, unless you have a private plane. I use the Acela to Boston, but that turns out to be far more of a toss up.


    The news out of France today was really cool. However, I’m sorry, you will never catch me riding anything that goes 300+ mph on the ground. Airplanes are scary enough, and even they have enough sense to slow down to 150 or so near the ground.

    The films on the news didn’t even show the crew wearing seat belts, not that it would matter at that speed.

    Then there is another problem. 250,000 HP? That seems to me to be insane. Anybody know what that equates to in jet thrust for an airplane?

    I have no idea what the physics are, but I would guess that the train needs a lot of weight to stay on the rails at that speed. Airplanes, on the other hand reduce the power requirements by reducing weight.

    JB is right though, locally generated electricity is preferable to imported kerosene.


    “at least the US-based airlines try on the European routes. They don’t even do that on their monopolized domestic routes.”


    “2) What makes the train so appealing…time, cost, station locations?”

    I once rode the train from Lisbon to Cascais, a Portuguese beach community. As I recall, the trip would be equivalent to riding from, say, Annapolis to Ocean City. It was dirt cheap, and you stepped off the train onto the boardwalk. The only U.S. equivalent, that I know of, is the ride from Denver to Winter Park.

    So, yes, it was time, cost, and station location. Not to mention a scenic ride. That is an amenity U. S. trains are sorely lacking. U. S. Trains have a tendency to show you the seamy underside of America, in my experience.

    “Do the trains in Europe make a profit?”

    No. England has largely “privatized” the railways, but they still enjoy massive subsidies.


    I concur with JB.

    “it would be surpassingly cool to link major East Coast cities in the United States with rail like this”

    But I’d happily settle for 150 MPH.

    Even for that, the cost might be frightenly high. Frankly, I’m not sure I care. I agree with anonymous, that it is going to take government spending.

    Strangely enough, despite my (some would say) diatribes against METRO, I do think there is a case to be made for medium distance, high speed, intercity rail transit.

    I would put rail to Dulles in that category, rather than in the category of METRO to Tysons, continuing to Dulles. It seems to me that those are two different markets.


    “1)How do you get to your final destination in Europe or Japan….take a cab, rent a car, ride a bus?”

    Excellent question.

  6. possibly inconvenient truth Avatar
    possibly inconvenient truth


    Imagine if the cost of this drops. Richmond could be less than 20 minutes from Washington, DC.

    Imagine Richmond as a bedroom community for Tysons Corner!

    Imagine running commuter spurs to cheap farmland hundreds of miles away for mega-subdivisions where everyone has a quick pleasant train ride to Washington while reading Bacons Rebellion and the Post on their laptops.

    Soon, LA will be building subdivisions in the desert. Would desert sprawl with no loss of farmland be dysfunctional?

  7. Groveton Avatar


    The Paris train is operated by a company called Eurostar. You board the train at Garde du Norde in the city of Paris. It goes to the Waterloo station in the city of London. There are many other stations accessible by train in Europe but that’s how I get from Paris to London and visa versa.

    I take a cab from the train station to wherever I am going in Paris or London. However, I am pretty sure that you could take the “tube” in London or the Metro in Paris. There is also an extensive bus service available.

    I guess you could rent a car but I’ve never done that. My business in London and Paris is always within the city limits so a rented car would be more trouble than it’s worth for me. However, the trains also run to the south of France and other less developed regions. I assume that people who take the train to these locations would rent a car to get around the local area.

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