Posts Tagged ‘ Europe ’

Train travel in Europe

I’ve recently advocated the building of a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney in Australia, currently one of the busiest air routes in the world. I feel that I should qualify this a little more by sharing some of my own experiences of rail travel around Europe, both high-speed and standard.

High-speed rail has become very popular in Europe and on some routes has virtually wiped out the competing air traffic. There are no flights from Brussels to Paris anymore for example. In fact, if you are flying on Air France out of Charles de Gaulle Airport your plane ticket includes the high-speed train trip from Brussels and you can check in your bags at Brussels South Station. C’est incroyable!

The first high-speed rail lines in Europe were built in the 1980’s beginning in France. In 1981 the LGV Sud-Est line from Paris to Lyon opened and the famous TGV started running. France now has the most extensive high-speed network in Europe with lines radiating out in every direction from Paris. The TGV network now extends into Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK and in 2007 a TGV test train set the record for the fastest wheeled train with a speed of 574.8 km/h!

I have had the pleasure of quite a few different train trips whilst living in Belgium, mostly to London but also to other destinations. My main experience is with the Eurostar service from Brussels to London which is slightly different than other train trips around continental Europe so I’ll comment on this first.

Eurostar

Eurostar

Eurostar began operating in 1994 following the completion of the Channel Tunnel. I have used it many times to travel between Brussels and London and find it very convenient and generally hassle-free. I’m not known for my patience and the idea of queuing for anything, particularly airport security, fills me with horror. Because the UK has not signed up to the Schengen Agreement there is still passport control which you pass through at your departure point. There is also security similar to airports due, I suspect, to the Channel Tunnel being a likely terrorist target. However, unlike at airports, this check goes very quickly and I’ve never taken more than 15 minutes from arrival at the station to boarding my train. That I can live with.

The trains themselves are very comfortable and quiet and they travel at up to 300kph once they are out of Brussels. This is particularly noticeable when another train passes going 300kph in the opposite direction!

St Pancras International

Now that High Speed 1 line in Southern England is complete the trip takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes and you arrive at the recently refurbished St Pancras Station which is amazing. The interiors of the trains are a little dated but they are clean and comfortable with plenty of legroom and big windows. On a couple of occasions when I have caught a special deal I’ve travelled “Leisure Select” which is what they call first class. Even bigger seats and a decent 3 course meal served at your seat with wine for only 15€ extra! If I book far enough in advance I’ve usually managed to get fares for between 60 and 90€ each way. I don’t believe I could fly for that little and regardless, I would rather pay more for the point-to-point convenience.

Thalys

Thalys

I’ve also travelled between Brussels and Paris several times on Thalys, an international joint venture between the French SNCF, Belgian NMBS, and German Deutsche Bahn. This hasn’t always gone quite so smoothly, mostly due to the belligerence of French railway staff and their propensity to go on strike. However, aside from a particularly bad experience last Christmas, partly due to bad weather, the experience has been good. The Thalys trains are newer than Eurostar and also travel around 300kph. One bonus is the availability of WiFi at a reasonable cost so you can work if you’re not on holiday. The train from Brussels arrives at Paris-Nord which is right in the heart of Paris and connects you to everywhere easily via the Metro. It only takes 1 hour and 20 minutes from Brussels. I drove to Paris once and that took over 3 hours and I was faced with the horror of driving my new BMW amongst crazed Parisian drivers and the impossible task of finding a parking space. Never again.

ICE

ICE

German trains are the coolest, mostly because they are sleek and white and called ICE (InterCityExpress). I had the pleasure of travelling on one of these a couple of years ago from Köln to Brussels. These trains travel at up to 320kph and, like the Eurostar and Thalys they are very quiet, smooth and comfortable. The other bonus with travelling within continental Europe is that there is zero security so you just turn up at the station and get on the train. The trains have a dining car so you can purchase snacks if you get hungry.

ICE

Whilst most of Western Europe uses the systems developed for TGV, Germany is slightly different which limits the trains that can cross their international borders. For this reason there are two types of TGV train, domestic and international. The international (ICE 3M) trains are able to cope with changes in voltage experienced on different networks. ICE trains are also the only ones able to run on the Köln-Frankfurt high-speed line because of the steep 4% incline.

There are still differences between the various high-speed systems used across Europe but these are slowly being resolved as a Trans-European high-speed rail network is being realised. Railteam is an alliance of 7 European high-speed rail operators whose aim is to offer integrated rail travel between major European cities in different countries. The aim is that services will be better co-ordinated to offer shorter connection times and more integrated booking. For a great overview of high-speed rail across Europe check out Wikipedia.

Deutsche Bahn

BMW on train (DB Autozug)

In addition to high-speed rail there are of course still plenty of slow trains. In 2009 we decided to go on a driving holiday around the northern half of Italy. However, because it is 1,000kms from Belgium to Italy we weren’t so keen on driving there. It would have used up 4 days of our holiday, cost us 4 nights accommodation, and put 2,000 unnecessary kms on my new car. But we wanted to drive my car when we were in Italy as a rental car would have been expensive and probably not very exciting for zooming through Italian mountain passes. So we booked ourselves on the Deutsche Bahn Autozug, a sleeper train with a car carrier at the back, the perfect solution. The Autozug leaves from Düsseldorf (which is only an hours drive from Antwerp) in the late afternoon, travels overnight down the Rhine Valley, through Austria and the Alps and arrives at 9am in Verona, Italy. Because it was summer it didn’t get dark till after 10pm so we had some very picturesque views of the Rhine Valley out the window of our sleeper.

The train was certainly not fast and it was pretty rattly but with the help of a sleeping tablet I got a good nights sleep while we meandered across the continent. This meant that the first day of our holiday started in Verona and no time was wasted driving there. Two weeks later we were back in Verona for the same trip in reverse. I highly recommend it.

NMBS

NMBS

Nationale Maatschappij der Belgische Spoorwegen (National Railway Company of Belgium) is the Belgian National rail operator and, given that I live in Belgium, I’ve spent a fair bit of time on their trains. I’m inclined to believe that they are fairly typical of a continental European train operator in that they are very good. Belgians will complain about their trains but then I think complaining about the trains is a national past-time in every country. My experience has been that they are clean, mostly modern, and generally on-time. Of course there have been occasions when I’ve been inconvenienced by a cancelled train or late one but those have been the exception to the rule. Certainly if you want to travel between Antwerp and Brussels the train is the fastest way. A lot of the trains even have power outlets by the seats for your laptop.

Antwerp Railway Station

By far the best aspect of Belgium’s rail network is not the trains however, but Antwerp railway station. Constructed between 1895 and 1905 it has a vast dome above the foyer with an enormous iron and glass trainshed covering the platforms. According to Wikipedia it was voted the 4th most beautiful station in the world in 2009.

Antwerpen Centraal

It was originally a terminus but has recently been renovated and extended underground so that now a new tunnel continues right under the station and emerges north of Antwerp City. This will allow future high-speed trains to continue through to Amsterdam. So even if you don’t arrive in Antwerp by train, I highly recommend checking out the train station.

Metros/The Tube

The Tube

In addition to overland trains I’ve also experienced the underground system in a few cities, namely London, Paris and Barcelona. They certainly have their flaws but for getting around these big cities quickly, they can’t be beaten. The Tube in London is often crowded, very hot, and some of the stations have endless stairs. Also, for some reason your snot always ends up black after 5 minutes down there… But there is no better way to move across London due to the congestion above ground. The Paris Metro is more modern than the Tube and the stations seem to be better designed as a result. Again, it is the fastest and most efficient way of getting around. The Metro in Barcelona is not as extensive as the other two cities which means you have to walk a bit further to the stations but it is still a good way of getting around. Beware pickpockets though!

So there you have it. As you might have guessed, I quite like trains, particularly the fast ones.

Argument for offshore windfarms – UK

Offshore Windfarm

Just read compelling article by George Monbiot in the Guardian advocating the use of the UK’s offshore wind resources. Apparently the UK could become a net exporter of electricity by 2050 based on the potential for offshore wind generation and their expected energy consumption. Generation from offshore wind turbines has many benefits over onshore generation and avoids many of the pitfalls that stimy planned projects, most notably the NIMBY effect.

The points made in favour are:

  1. Taking into account constraints on offshore renewables such as water depths, shipping lanes and other obstacles there is practical potential for 2,130 terawatt hours per year – 6 times the UK’s current electricity demand.
  2. Utilising only 29% of this potential resource the UK could become a net electricity exporter.
  3. Utilising 76% of this potential resource the UK could become a net energy exporter (i.e. net of all electricity, oil and gas consumption).
  4. 145,000 people would be employed.
  5. Annual revenue of £62bn.
  6. The UK’s looming energy gap could be closed without resorting to any further use of fossil fuels.
  7. The public hostility to onshore windfarms would be avoided as the best offshore wind resource is far offshore where the turbines can’t be seen.
  8. Potential to create marine reserves around the turbines.
  9. Basically zero potential for habitat destruction unlike tidal barrages.

The major constraint at present is the capacity of the national grid to accommodate variable renewables. For the above benefits to apply the grid needs 34 gigawatts of backup capacity, energy storage, and interconnections with the continent via the proposed renewables supergrid. Given that this supergrid already has a measure of political approval and some very strong backers from the likes of Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark it is reasonably safe to assume that it will happen, so the UK should push ahead and become the leaders in offshore wind. This combined with the a renewables supergrid acting as a giant battery for Europe’s clean energy would make Eneropa a reality.

The construction effort required to make the UK a net energy exporter would be roughly equivalent to building the North Sea oil and gas infrastructure all over again, an enormous undertaking and no doubt a point that the sceptics will seize upon. But the fact is, if something so large was built before then it is completely plausible that it could be built again, only this time it would be clean, efficient, and future-proof. All that is needed is the political will to push it through and maybe even that is possible now with a fresh, inspired new government…

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2010/may/20/offshore-renewables-pirc-report

Additional source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/19/offshore-green-energy-uk

Eneropa

Eneropa

Interesting article in the Guardian showing a map of Europe divided up by potential for renewable energy generation rather than by nation. For example, the UK and Ireland are called the tidal states due to their huge potential for tidal power and Spain, Italy, Greece are part of Solaria due to their potential for solar power generation.

I believe strongly that a Pan-European renewable energy grid is the way forward. Most renewable energy technology by it’s very nature cannot be relied upon to provide base-load power generation because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow in every country. But it is safe to say that when the sun isn’t shining in Spain, it’s quite likely that it is shining in Greece or Germany and when the wind isn’t blowing in Denmark it probably is in Scotland. Thus if we have the ability to send renewable energy efficiently from where it is available to where it is needed and if we use a combination of all different forms of generation it is feasible to entirely rely on renewables.

A Pan-European grid would also help to remove much of the opposition to renewable energy that exists today. Sceptics and opponents wouldn’t be able to downplay the effectiveness of a proposed wind-farm by saying “and what happens when the wind isn’t blowing?”. The answer would simply be that another region of the grid being fed by wave power or solar power or hydro-power would pick up the slack and life can continue uninterrupted.

The other benefit I see in such a scenario is it will allow regions to really focus on the technology that is best suited to them instead of being distracted by trying to cover all bases. If Spain knew that it could rely on hydro-power from Norway when the sun isn’t shining then they would be free to pour all of their development money into maximising solar generation without having to worry about also giving themselves a backup. In contrast the UK could forget solar generation which is marginal at best in their climate and focus on tidal and wind generation. Each region could become an expert and world leader in their own field. Arguably some regions have already achieved this e.g. Denmark with wind-power and Norway with hydro-power.

Without such cooperation and sharing I agree with the sceptics that renewable energy generation will never be able to cover the base-load requirements of Europe.

Here is a link to the article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2010/may/07/architecture-rem-koolhaas