PARIS TO STRASBOURG, FRANCE AND BACK ON EUROPE’S FASTEST HIGH SPEED LINE
December 29th, 2010
This past December my wife Jody and I visited our daughter in Paris. We hoped to take a Eurostar chunnel train to spend a few days in London. However, we waited too long to make reservations and only expensive seats remained. The same situation pertained to travel on discount airlines. Buses were sold out. A back-up plan for Amsterdam by train also ran afoul of high prices for the few remaining seats. Cheap bus seats were available but friends said the ride took 9 hours (versus 3 hours by train) in uncomfortable seats.
My daughter and her fiancé suggested we visit Strasbourg in eastern France known for it’s Christmas markets and displays. Two round-trip tickets—one way in second class the return in first class were $292. Each trip was scheduled for two hours and 20 minutes on the country’s newest and Europe’s fastest high speed line, known as the LVG Est (East high speed line). A speed record of 357 mph was achieved on this line in 2007 with a special, modified train. The line was paid for by a coalition of the French National Railways (SNCF), the RFF (Reseau Ferre de France--an entity that manages rail infrastructure in France), 17 municipalities along the line, and the European Union.
At 10:25AM on Thursday, December 29, 2010 we left the Gare de’l Est (East station) for Strasbourg on iDTGV 2995. The train was full. Our economy 2nd class seats faced another pair of seats with a small table in between. They were disturbingly similar to economy airline seats—narrow. However, they reclined further and I could almost straighten out my long legs. Best of all I could walk through several cars to an elegant stand-up café-bar where a friendly attendant sold me coffee and breakfast. The food service was catered by an outside contractor similar to Marriott’s food service subsidiary in the US.
A young couple sat opposite us and spent the entire journey working furiously—he on a laptop, she with an I-Phone and legal pad. A few passengers slept or read but most worked on various electronic devices. Virtually nobody spoke. Jody remarked that between the quiet, smooth ride of the train and the silent people we were in a fast moving church. The only discernible noise was the soft tapping of fingers and thumbs on laptops and I-phones.
In the café-bar I watched the eastern suburbs of Paris speed by. We passed coach yards full of suburban train cars and inter-city passenger cars used on secondary trains. Outside of both Paris and Strasbourg we cruised past freight yards chock full of inter-modal, auto-rack, and chemical cars being switched by four and eight wheel diesel switchers. Big, boxy electric freight locomotives stood on ready tracks.
The rural scenery was snowy and scenic—fallow fields, cute villages, hills and an extensive forest that flew by at 210 mph. At Baudreville we left the high speed line and entered conventional track (good for 100 mph only). Then we stopped for twenty minutes. An announcement was made in French, German and English that icy rails and a “plateau” were to blame. This brief delay resulted in a late arrival at the Strasbourg TGV station. Fellow passengers grumbled but it didn’t bother us tourists. The next day I received an apologetic e-mail from the SNCF for our train’s late arrival. Does Acela do that for late arrivals?
We stayed in Strasbourg until January 1. There were hundreds of wooden stalls selling all manner of Christmas stuff, food and, best of all, hot wine. The decorations in the old city were better than the markets—imaginative and beautifully done. The basic Christmas lights everywhere were light blue and purple instead of white. The old city was full of very, very old, well-preserved buildings that are still utilized as shops, café-bars, restaurants, offices and residences. Strasbourg’s main cathedral was built during the 12th – 14th centuries with a tower 400 feet high. It reminded me of the cathedral in the batman movie that Jack Nicholson--as the Joker--fell from. The cathedral is a free museum of medieval and renaissance art and technology with thousand year-old tapestries, paintings, sculptures and a huge, complex, 300 year-old astronomical clock with moving human and animal figures.
Four light rail lines crisscrossed Strasbourg in the medians of wide boulevards and we rode three car trains into the suburbs. Each white car had huge windows, and comfortable padded seating. These heavily utilized trains rode quietly and smoothly. The signal system triggered stop lights at each intersection for oncoming car traffic.
In my home town of Birmingham, AL a light rail line was suggested for our most congested corridor. The state highway department is proposing instead a 16 mile elevated toll road on top of the present highway for an estimated 900 million dollars.
On Sunday, January 1 we boarded TGV 2102 at 10:30 AM for the return to Paris. The train appeared to be about 80% full. We sat in wide, comfortable, fully reclining first class seats with ample leg room and a soft head rest. We fell asleep right away. Jody stayed asleep until we reached the outskirts of Paris two hours later.
After 20 minutes I awoke and groggily moved through other first class cars to the café-bar car. I bought a hot chocolate and bagel sandwich and looked out the window just as we entered the high speed line at Baudreville. Almost imperceptibly the train emitted a low whine and began moving so fast the catenary poles and trackside signals whipped by in a blur. Cars going in our direction on a parallel toll-way seemed to stand still. I was mesmerized by the special effects of “extreme” speed.
A high speed upgrade is under construction from Baudreville to Strasbourg that will reduce travel time from Paris to one hour and 50 minutes. At Strasbourg a connection will be made to the German high speed network so that travel from Paris to Frankfurt will drop from six hours and 15 minutes to three hours and 50 minutes.
Upon returning to my de-luxe seat I noticed our fellow passengers were again seriously involved with electronic devices and legal pads—on New Years day no less.
It felt like an early morning business flight on Southwest Airlines. And as with Southwest, our train-set would be quickly cleaned in Paris and filled for a return trip.
We arrived 3 minutes ahead of time, left the station, walked across the street and descended into a “metro” station for the final leg to my daughter’s apartment.
Our mini-vacation to Strasbourg was exceptional thanks, in part, to the train rides. May our nation some day provide the public with such great transportation and service in major corridors. Population growth along I-85 indicates to me that truly high speed rail service would work well from Atlanta to Washington, DC.