Here’s what impressed me about my three train rides today: the slow trains here are fast and the fast trains are really fast.
When Matthew Foy of Railbookers in London presented me with my rail tickets and hotel vouchers, he described several of the rail segments as “local trains”, emphasizing that there was no reserved seating on any of them and that I should just climb aboard and grab a seat. OK, no problem … but somehow, subconsciously, I came away with a mental image of old equipment rattling across the European landscape.
Boy, was that wrong. The first thing I noticed about the “local” that took me from Chartres into Gare Montparnasse in Paris (above, pulling into the Chartres a station in the early morning light) was that this was a serious train. At least a dozen cars, with lots of high-school-age kids piling off and lots of adults getting on for the commute to Paris.
Second, as per the schedule, the train left Chartres on the dot of 7:57 a.m. And I don’t mean 7:56 or 7:58. On the dot!
I noticed the third thing about 20 seconds later. Before the last car had cleared the platform, we were really moving! And in between the five or six stops en route to Paris, our engineer had the peddle to the metal. Just a guess: 80-90 miles an hour on the straightaways.
When we arrived at Gare Montparnasse, I hustled to the designated spot to queue for taxis and found 50 or 60 people and no cabs. My God! In New York City they would have swarmed in there banging fenders to get at us. I was sweating my connection for the train to Zurich which was departing from Gare de Lyon, so I reversed course, found my way out to the street and voila! almost immediately found taxi with a driver for whom getting me to Gare de Lyon in time was a trifle not worth mentioning, but clearly worthy of a generous tip. (That’s a pourboire in French, which literally means “for drink”, and I have no doubt whatsoever that’s where it went.)
The Paris-to-Zurich train was a TGV Lyria train of the high-speed rail network that links France with Switzerland. There were at least a dozen bi-level cars in the trainset (photo above is of the upper level in a first class car) which ran at conventional speeds as we left Paris and rolled through the suburbs and areas that were not completely protected with fencing. At one point — I would guess we were cruising along at 60-70 mph at the time — we even passed over a dirt road that crossed the tracks at grade.
But for most of the four hour trip we ran at true high-speed. A digital read-out up at the front of the car was consistently around 280 km/hr (175 mph), and through several long stretches ran well up into the 300s, peaking three or four times at 319 km/hr or 198 mph. That’s exactly what it was because I got a good look as I made my way back to the lounge in the car directly behind mine. Sipping a cold bottle of an excellent Swiss beer at 200 miles-per-hour … priceless!
Finally, the Swiss train taking me from Zurich to Chur accelerated noticeably while departing the four or five station stops en route, rocketed through suburbs, along the shoreline of a large lake, through several long tunnels and across open farmlands at speeds clearly around 100 mph, and braking very firmly into station stops along the way.
Wow! So much for those plodding “local” trains.