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]

Europe expands high-speed train system with new bridge

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]

The race for the next high-speed train

The race is on, so to speak, with a number of countries and companies recently announcing their plans for the next-generation of high-speed rail travel. While France set the railroad world speed record in 2007 at 575 km/h (357 mph), Japan and most western European countries have set their revenue speed limit at 300 km/h, or around 186 mph. It looks like eager train-travelers (and possibly former air travelers) will soon be traveling a good deal faster in almost any of the above-mentioned countries. Read on for details on some of Japan, China and France’s high-speed ambitions.

Japan, the country that most will agree invented high-speed rail as we know it, is now showing off a prototype of a new high-speed train. Well, more specifically, it’s a Japanese company that’s doing so – Kawasaki Heavy Industries. The design of the amazingly-titled Environmentally Friendly Super Express Train (or efSET) will be complete by March 2009, with engineering testing done in 2010. A lightweight body will allow the train to run at up to 350 km/h (217 mph) in revenue service, and components tested in daily Shinkansen service will keep the system reliable. Kawasaki hopes to sell its design to Japan Rail as well as other countries around the world.

Not to be outdone, Alstom, a French company that’s been building high-speed trains for decades has also unveiled the first generation of its AGV (Automotrice Grande Vitesse). The train is, in fact, already done and is currently undergoing testing at various sites all over Europe. Alstom expects its design to travel at revenue speeds of 360 km/h (223 mph).

Finally, as we’ve previously reported, China is developing a new high-speed link between Beijing and Shanghai. The 380 km/h (236 mph) trains will make the 650-mile trip in about five hours and are scheduled to debut in 2012. Curiously enough, it’s the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that has the most thorough report on the matter, so check it out if you’re interested.

Fast Rail on the Horizon for U.S.?

Gas prices, airport delays, and traffic jams just might provoke U.S. travelers to embrace high-speed rail. Finally.

It won’t be an easy journey to the 200 mph trains enjoyed in Japan and across Europe; track and safety improvements for already-proposed projects could cost billions. And some argue that federal money should be spent researching alternative fuel and electric cars.

Amtrak’s Acela Express, running from Boston to Washington D.C., is just six years old and the U.S.’s only rail line that tops the international “high speed” standard of 125 mph. But although it hits its maximum speed of 150 mph, it averages a mere 86 mph over its full 456-mile run. But the Acela saw a 20 percent increase in ridership in May when gas prices topped $3 a gallon, and Amtrak is poised for its fifth year of ridership gains.

Other regions are planning their own high-speed lines. The Illinois Department of Transportation’s Rail Division estimates that the 5 1/2 hour trip from Chicago to St. Louis can be cut by 90 minutes, although completing that project will cost more than $400 million. But California’s plan is the most ambitious so far: an electric-powered train running at 220 mph from Los Angeles to San Francisco, cutting a 9-hour drive to a 3 1/2 hour ride.

No mention was made of possible fares.

[via USA Today]