Travel Smarter 2012: Tips for improving your train travel

The railroad is the oldest, commercial mass transport of the modern age, predating the car and the airplane by at least 100 years. So how can train travel be smarter in 2012?

For starters, “the train takes less time total than all the preliminaries of air travel,” says Margaret King, who regularly opts to take the train to New York City, DC, and Boston from her home in Philadelphia. “I can take plenty of luggage, with no extra fees; I can easily work aboard the train; [and there are] no security hassles.”

From smartphone apps to help you plan and book your travel to a new crop of high-speed trains, train services across the globe have upgraded to appeal to frustrated air travelers and entice would-be drivers from their cars. Let’s take a look at all the ways traveling by train is smarter in 2012.

Smartphone Apps
Name any national railway and there’s likely an app that helps you find train schedules, get arrival and departure updates, and book seats. If you’re traveling to Europe, you can download apps for the particularly country you may be visiting or get the free Rail Europe app. Though far from perfect (e.g., tickets purchased through the app are sent via email as an e-ticket or, given enough lead time, mailed, rather than existing digitally within the app itself), the Rail Europe app gives you information on timetables, stations, and more for 35 European countries. Amtrak has a similar app (also free) that includes a panel for Guest Rewards, a loyalty program that lets regular rail travelers earn points towards free trips. Round-the-world trekkers, particularly those that intend to city-hop, would do well to download AllSubway HD ($0.99), a database of more than 130 city subway maps.Improved Rail Travel Using Social Media and the Web
Twitter is the social media platform of choice for travelers who need quick answers on rail information, particularly interruptions in service on municipal rail lines. Transitpal, a service available to riders of the Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area, monitors tweets to determine delays, police activity, and schedule changes. A companion app to the Transitpal service is set to launch in spring 2012 and the concept, says developer and Google alum Frederick Vallaeys, could easily be applied to rail lines in other cities.

As for using the web to improve the rail travel experience, look to Hipmunk, which became in fall 2011 the first online travel agent to integrate Amtrak searches. Hipmunk now displays train schedules and fares alongside airline timetables and fares, giving passengers, particularly those on the East Coast, where Amtrak service is strong, “greater flexibility and pricing power when considering routes.” Sadly, Amtrak fares are not included in Hipmunk’s smartphone app.

High-Speed Rail and Express Trains
Investing in high-speed rail infrastructure has become a priority on the local, state, regional, and federal level as they see that more consumers are willing to pay a bit extra for faster connections. Countries currently at work on high-speed rail networks include Turkey, China, Italy, and Russia. China’s newest express line, which connects Beijing to Shanghai in just over five hours, opened in June 2011. NTV, the first private bullet train operator in Italy, is set to begin service of its Italo fast trains in spring 2012. A point of interest: the private, high-speed rail line has the backing of Italian leather goods mogul Diego delle Valle, among other investors, and a 20 percent stake by SNCF, the French National Rail Service.

Russia has two relatively new high-speed trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg and Helsinki, Finland, but Russian Railways is currently at work on a line that will connect Moscow with Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Turkey’s famous Haydarpaşa Train Station, the terminus on the Asian side of Istanbul closed in January 2012 for restoration so that Turkish State Railways (TCDD) could complete its construction of the high-speed link between Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, as well as the Marmaray Tunnel, a controversial and ambitious project that will create an underground rail link between Europe and Asia by digging a tunnel below the Bosphorus.

On-Board Amenities
In a bid to compete with and outdo airlines and bus companies, railways have been upgrading on-board amenities, such as offering Wi-Fi and unique dining menus. Amtrak launched free Wi-Fi on 12 East Coast routes and three California routes in fall 2011, thereby bringing the percentage of Wi-Fi-equipped fleet to 75 percent. (Note: Hipmunk, mentioned above, automatically provides info on Wi-Fi trains in its search.)

Meanwhile, rail passengers on board the Canadian, the VIA Rail train that connects Toronto to Vancouver, can look forward to a revamped dining menu. VIA recently enlisted the talents of eight chefs in a Top Chef-style cook-off. The 2012 Menu Creation Challenge saw the chefs create 72 gourmet dishes for menu consideration.

[flickr image via krikit]

Survey says: 79% of travelers would pick high speed rail over air travel when possible

high speed rail

In a recent poll of global travelers by SilverRail Technologies, 90% of respondents said they would like to see rail options displayed alongside flights when searching for travel. Rail is suddenly a hot topic (again) as the Obama Administration has pledged $53 billion to create several new high speed rail corridors in the country.

High speed rail is a very realistic alternative in Europe and Asia, but in the US there are very few routes that can currently be replaced by rail transport. When asked whether they would pick rail over air when available:

  • 79% would choose train over plane if high-speed rail options existed.
  • 61% would choose rail over air if the cost was the same or better.

The hassles involved in air travel have also helped increase interest in rail alternatives:

  • 86% of people would accept having the entire time from door-to-door be longer to avoid the process of checking in, security and boarding.
  • 66% would willingly add an hour or more of total travel to their trips to avoid the hassles of long lines, airport security and baggage fees.

Just how bad is the packing situation? Some people actually pack underwear in their laptop bag to reduce the weight of their main bag:

  • 89% of people take action to avoid paying bag fees, planning packing days in advance and stuffing carry-ons to maximum capacity to avoid checking bags.
  • 19% of people surveyed say they pack underwear in a laptop bag to avoid checking bags.
  • 61% are frustrated with extra costs added to airline ticket prices and wanted to be secure that the ticket price they paid is the total price.

And finally, when asked about how air travel has changed in recent years, 72% say waiting in the various lines is the #1 hassle:

  • Waiting in line is the #1 air travel hassle, according to 72% of people.
  • While waiting in line for a pat down, 47 % dream about the easy travel of yesteryear
  • 36% wanted family and friends to be able to accompany them to the gate, an impossibility with air travel

VIDEO: Mad Men high-speed rail travel PSA


“Would you rather fly into Queens or take the train into Manhattan?” is just one of the great would-be ad taglines in this PSA starring Mad Men actors Vincent Kartheiser and Rich Sommer to promote high-speed rail in America (we’re hoping for a sequel with a Simpsons‘ Monorail-esque jingle). They also argue for the simplicity and convenience of

train travel and how you can save time, money, and aggravation. All of these points were true about the importance of a high-speed rail network in 1965 and they are even more true in 2011, so let’s make it happen!

Learn more on how to support high-speed rail at

www.madfasttrains.com and vote for the video on FunnyorDie.com.

Europe expands high-speed train system with new bridge

high-speed train, train, EU, Europe
A new bridge across the Ill river in Strasbourg is a major step forward for the European Union’s plans for a high-speed railway reaching from Paris to Bratislava, the BBC reports.

An earlier bridge had only one track and could only carry trains going a maximum of 100 kph (62mph). The new bridge has two tracks and can deal with trains going 160kph (99mph). The Paris-Bratislava line is one of a network of high-speed railways being built across the EU, but with a price tag of 63 million euros ($84 million) just for the bridge, construction is being affected by the economic crisis. Some countries have already cut back funding and delayed projects. Still, high-speed trains are becoming increasingly popular across Europe because they’re more comfortable than planes, and more convenient since they take passengers from city center to city center.

The French city of Strasbourg is close to the German border and home to the European Parliament. It’s also attractive to tourists for its medieval and Renaissance architecture.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

High-speed rail deal may mean more services between UK and Europe

The UK government has leased its High Speed One line to a Canadian consortium. The line, which cost more than £5 billion ($8.1 billion) in taxpayer money to build, will be run by Borealis Infrastructure and the Ontario Teachers’ Pension fund on a 30 year lease. They paid £2.1 billion ($3.4 billion) in the deal.

The High Speed One line is the route that Eurostar uses in its journeys from London to Paris and Brussels. The consortium plans to open the line up to more train companies in a move that will see more competition, and hopefully lower rates, on the popular route.

The line will continue to be under the ultimate authority of the UK government and subject to its regulations.

[Photo courtesy user Sunil060902 via Wikimedia Commons]