... in railways

Europe Asia Express

04 Oct 2020 | 210 words | europe railways travel infrastructure maps

Lately there has been a lot of talk about reviving the Trans Europe Express (TEE) that had its heyday well before i was even born. If that means more investment into high-speed trans-european rail infrastructure it has my full support (even though it will be next to impossible to match the design sensitivity that came along with the TEE).

Speaking about railway nostalgia, I came across this illustration on flickr today, which illustrates the networks serverd by the TEE predecessor Simplon Orinet Express and its middle eastern equivalent the Taurus Express in the late 1930s:

Taurus Express and Simplon Orient Express via Bruce Sterling's flickr

If there is talk about reviving old railway networks then we should probably skip the TEE and go right here. If revieved, this network would cover more than enough of the world for me to never set foot into an airplane again and spend the rest of my life exploring these parts (as of writing i have visited or lived in 9/11 of the stops on the European side of this network and 7/13 on the Afrian/Asian side).

And since we are discussing reviving express trains here, i am also very much looking forward to the Chungking Express sequel that is apparently in the works.

Twice as fast = twice as nice

So today the dutch railways (NS) ran a one-time Amsterdam Berlin intercity service that was 27 minutes faster than the usual 6 hour 30 minutes Amsterdam Berlin intercity service. They achieved this by omitting all stops between Amsterdam and the German border (Hilversum, Amsersfoort, Apeldoorn, Deventer, Amelo and Henglo). According to the NS it should be possible to further reduce travel time to four hours by aquiring engines that are capable of running 200 km/h on the Dutch and the German railwys (right now there is a change of engine in Bad Bentheim that takes about 15 minutes) and by skipping most stops on the German side (Bad Bentheim, Rheine, Bad Oeynhausen, Minden, Wolfsburg, Stendal and Berlin Spandau). The main obstacle against this badly needed upgrade of the Amsterdam Service? According to the Volkskrant all these little places insist on having the train stop in their stations.

Still the NS seems to be fairly determined to upgrade the line and bring the travel time down to four hours1, which would make it roughly competetive with direct flights between Amsterdam and Berlin. Four hours between Amsterdam and Berlin would mean an average speed of 160 km/h which is nice compared to the current average of 98 km/h but it is a far cry from the 200 km/h reuired to qualify as a high speed rail service. By comparison i have recently had the pleasure to travel on the so called Zon Thlays (a dedicated summer weekend only service that connects Amsterdam with the south of France) which runs the 1244 km from Amsterdam to Aix en Provence in 6 hours 47 minutes (an average speed of 187 km/h including a 15 minute crew rest stop at Paris CDG Airport, required by labour regulations). This is nearly twice as fast and makes the 6 and a half our drudgery of the current Amsterdam Berlin service even more unbearable. It brings Marseille within 7 hours of Amsterdam which feels quite amazing in more than one way (both of them being old port cities on opposite sides of the continental European land mass that culturally feel much further apart that a 7 hour train ride).

Now most of the service runs on dedicated high speed lines (with the notable exception of the bit between Antwerp and Brussels which the Belginas refuse to upgrade, in their own petty version of the i-want-the-train-to-slow-down-and-call in-my-little-village described above) and it does not make any sheduled stops between Brussels and Valence, bypassing Paris to the east (see routemap below). The trip feels like a triumph of infrastructure over time and it illustrates that if we ever want to get Euroepans of their addiction to low cost flights we will need to substantially invest into better high speed rail infrastructure.

There is no good reason why people should be able to fly across the continet, destroying the climate in pursuit of the next city trip if we had infrastuctire linking major cities that would allow travelling 1200 km or so within 6 hours (think breakfast in Amsterdam, dinner in Marseille). Now such infrastructure does not come cheap2, but given the climate destroying effects of our addiction to cheap short haul air travel, there are little alternatives.

The most logical source of the required investments would be a suracharge on intra EU airline tickets. A modest €20 per ticket would bring in €12,5 billion per year (based on the 626 million passengers of national and intra EU28 passengers identified in the 2016 air transport statistics). To make the point that people should take the train insteard of the plane it this surcharge should be inreased to €100 per ticket for routes that compete with trains services that take 4 hours or less such as Amsterdam-Paris (1,26M passengers in 2017 = €101M extra ), Paris-London (1,07M passengers in 2017 = €86M extra) and many others. Over time such surcharges could result in substantial funds that can be invested into building a better high speed train infrastructure (think Japan) and in the short run they would make train operators on existing high speed connections much more competetive.

Given the political clout that the airline business has (they have succesfully resited the idea of taxing jetfuel for decades) such a measure would require a lot of political will to enact, but given the untenable trajectory that we are on when it comes to airtravel, there may be little other choices. The only other alternative would be for people to actually travel less. While undoubtably better, it is quite a hard sell on generations raised on cheap jet-fuel and the idea that multiple city trips per year are a basic human right.

Route of the direct Thalys service from Amsterdam to Aix en Provence

  1. Which is probably an unrealistic excpection. This 2018 study by engeneering firm Royal HaskoningDSV (commissioned by Natuur en Milieufederatie Noord-Holland) comes to the conclusion that without upgrading the track the measures described above would result in a retuction of travel time of 46 minutes only (page 32). This would mean five hours and 38 minutes total travel time which is not much better than the current situation. The same study calculates that upgrading the route to proper high speed infrastructue would reduce total travel time time to 3 hours and 4 minutes (page 36, note that this tiem includes transfer to and from the train station) ↩︎

  2. The above-quoted Royal Haskoning study claculates the cost of buliding a HSL network that connects Amsterdam with most mayor metropolitan centers within a radius of 750km to be €78 billion. Such a network would consist of 3310 km of new HSL infrastructure (which, of course would be only one part of a Europe-wide HSL network). ↩︎

How to not run a high speed train service

12 Jan 2013 | 1098 words | infrastructure travel railways stupidity

Earlier this week i had the ‘pleasure’ of travelling down to Brussels using the new so called ‘Fyra‘ service by NS Hispeed for the first time (the service is operational since 9 december 2012). While the Fyra is making news mainly for the unreliability of the service (said to be somewhere between 55% and 75% on-time performance in the last week, with 5% of the trains ‘never making it to Brussels at all1 both journeys where perfectly on time. Still the entire experience really sucked. Here are a couple of suggestions what not to do when running a high speed rail service:

#1 come up with a crazy ticketing system that requires you to have a reservation when travelling on one sector (Rotterdam -> Antwerp) but not on the other (Amsterdam -> Schiphol). There were at least 2 groups of passengers in my immediate vicinity who were almost thrown of the train, because they had in fact a reservation for another train (2 hours later), neither of them were aware of this transgression. Threatening to throw people, who have paid for a ticket, off a half empty train just because they did not manage to understand the needlessly complex ticketing system is about the most stupid thing you can do to build a loyal customer base.

More generally the entire Fyra ticketing experience sucks. Apparently some idiot in the marketing department decided that it is somehow desirable to try to emulate airline ticketing practices because air travel is such a pleasure these days. Which of course it is not. One of the nicest things of train travel is the fact that you can just buy a ticket and board a train whenever it suits you, something NS hissed seems to be determined to help out of the world.

On both of my journeys there was a lot of completely unnecessary commotion because people were sitting on other people’s reserved seats and had to stand up only to figure out that someone was sitting on their seat and so on…

#2 Runs the trains on a completely useless time-table. Before the Fyra we already had the Thalys high speed service on the same route. Problem with the Thalys was that it did not run really frequently. So what would a sane person responsible for the Fyra time table do? you would expect them to schedule in the Fyra trains in between the Thalys trains so that passengers have more choice in arrival times. Except the Fyra time-table is off course not made by a sane person: Say you need to be in Brussels at 0900/0930h (not an entirely uncommon time for meetings to start) in which case you have the choice between trains arriving at 0742, 0808 and 0942:

Fyra timetable

#3 Have long scheduled stops along the way. One would assume that the advantage of a high speed train over other trains is that they get you to your destination faster. One thing that certainly does not contribute to getting from Amsterdam to Bruxelles as quickly as possible is making scheduled stops of 5 minutes in Rotterdam (2 minutes would be plenty to let people get on and off the train).

Now spending 3 unnecessary minutes on the train would not be so bad if the trains where not so goddam awful. It is not only that they are extremely ugly from the outside but rather that they are feeling extremely cheap;

#4 Make sure that 1/3 of the window seats face a cheap plastic wall panel instead of the window. The entire 2nd class interior of the trains is made out of cheap plastic, which gives the trains a super cheap feeling. It this is the worst if you are assigned (though the stupid reservation requirement mentioned above) a window seat which actually turns out to be a cheap plastic wall seat. Guess that is what you get when you take a train with relatively small windows and cram it full with seats.

Fyra window seat

#5 Have no power sockets and no wifi on board. I mean seriously NS hispeed, how is this even possible2? this is 2013 and you think that power plugs are something that only needs to be installed in 1st class? This is the dumbest attempt at an up-sell i have encountered in a long time. Hell, this is probably bad for our national competitiveness: While the Dutch arrive in Brussels with half empty batteries, the French, the British and the Germans arrive with their devices fully charged.

Also no wifi is a pretty stupid move, although fortunately you can organise your own connectivity, which is not really an option for power (one might consider bringing an extension cord to tap power from the toilets which do have power outlets for electric shavers, something i can’t imagine anyone using but apparently NS hispeed things that shaving yourself on the train is more important than charging your laptop).

The only hopeful thing is that the trains seem to be of such shitty quality that they will most likely not last very long (both cars i was travelling in had roof panels that made creaking noises every time we entered or exited a tunnel). If i was NS hispeed i would order new trains today. In the meanwhile i will be taking the Thalys

Update 1 June 2013: Turns out that the roof panels did come off. Yesterdays presentation by the Belgian railways company about the reasons why they are cancelling their Fyra order contains this image:

Fyra roof panel coming off

While the Belgians have cancelled their Fyras and are promising us more frequent Thalys services, NS has still not realised that they will need to order new trains.

  1. Which of course makes you wonder where it is they are ending up then. Some black hole in Brabant? Or do they simply disappear as the Buenos Aires subway train in ‘Moebius’↩︎

  2. And no, the fact that the trains were tendered is not an excuse for this as the train manger on the way to brussels suggested. In a tender you get what you write into a tender specification and apparently some idiot at the NS thought that having power plugs in first class only would be just fine. Guess the people writing tender specifications didn’t spend significant amounts of time on board of trains back then. Every half intelligent person could have figured that laptops and phones would become a big thing and that one of the great competitive advantages of trains is that you can work on your devices while charging them. ↩︎

Delhi metro now moving more people per day than the entire Dutch national railways

delhi metro > ns

This was mentioned in passing in an item on carbon trading that ran in today’s NOS evening news: the delhi metro is now transporting more passengers per day than the dutch national railways. a quick check on wikipedia shows that this is a bit of an understatement: daily ridership of the delhi metro system is 1.8M passengers per day while the NS is moving a mere 1.1M passengers per day (and struggling to do so i might add).

This figure pretty much blows my mind in a number of ways. while there have been railways in the netherlands since 1839 the delhi metro did only exist for a year or so when i first came to delhi in 2003. in less then 10 years this system has evolved into a system with 6 lines, 142 stations and 190KM of tracks. if you believe the delhi capital website you can even rent bicycles at some stations (back in 2003 the fact that i cycled from conaught circle to sarai was considered completely insane).

This is quite an achievement for a city that did not have much of a public transport infrastructure until 5 years ago. I still vividly how during one of my first trips on the delhi metro i observed multiple grown ups who tried to get a grip on the escalators in various stations. Seeing grown ups, how had clearly never encounters an escalator before, gathering the courage to step onto the moving stairs was one of the most powerful illustrations of modernization that i can imagine.

In the same vein the fact that there are now more riders on the delhi metro than on the the entire NS system strikes me as one of the most powerful illustrations of the insignificance of what is happening in the europe vis-a-vis the rest of the world and asia on particular…

Streetfighting immigrants rocks

11 Jan 2009 | 42 words | streetart railways urbanism migration amsterdam

Photo of a grafitti on a metro bridge between the A4 motorway and the Amsterdam-Zuid schiphol train tracks near the knooppunt nieuwe meer. Without climbing fences and walking on railway tracks it is only visible from trains running between Amsterdam-Zuid and Schiphol…

Police != intelligence

09 Jun 2006 | 485 words | railways germany border stupidity netherlands soccer

Looks like the football world cup has begun today. Unfortunately i am traveling to berlin on this very same day (by train via Arnhem/Duesseldorf), which means that you have to share the slightly overcrowded train with about 300 english football supporters and lots of bottles of more or less warm beer (i never loved my sound-canceling headphones more). However it also means that the authorities are freaking out in the name of security and decide to stop the train at the border station (where it usually does not stop) in order to let a posse of badly dressed, short-haired idiots wearing reflective vests on board of the train to check everybody’s passport.

Now everyone including the train staff assumed they would board the train and then do the checking while the train is moving. Instead the well-dressed gentlemen who was in charge of the whole operation had the brilliant idea to stop the train for the entire duration of the operation.

The well-dressed gentleman in charge (note the stylish combination of vest, shirt and belly

When asked them if he thought that this was a good idea his even less intelligent sidekick (with a much bette taste in facial hairdo though) told us that the stop was not related to their activities, but due to the trains engine having to be changed at the border. Now this is the biggest bullshit i have heard in a long time as there was (a) no stop scheduled and (b) the ICE3 does not even have a separate engine but rather a number of electrical motors under all the carriages. He also told us ‘to shut up as it was none of our businesses’

Now, to make matters worse, the 20-or-so cops decided that it was most efficient if they would walk through the entire train in one big group instead of splitting up in smaller groups. the result: the aisle clotted by a slowly moving mass of cops who were permanently bumping into each other (i guess that is why they were wearing kevlar vests) and stepped on each others feet while shouting personal data of everyone looking remotely British or non-european into their mobile phones.

All in all this truly impressive display of collective intelligence took more than 30 minutes. No terrorists where apprehended, the English supporters got their first good laugh at the German police and everybody missed their connections (which on a Friday afternoon is a bit of a pain in the neck).

The badly dressed, short-haired, reflective-vest-wearing idiots having a smoke

Also shortly before Duisburg the bar ran out of beer which is a bit embarrassing as the Deutsche Bahn is one of the main sponsors o the wold cup and has been running ads depicting happy supporters on trains for quite awhile now. Somebody at market research should have told them that happy football supporters consume more beer than average train passengers.

Portbou train station

22 Apr 2006 | 382 words | border railways mediterranean coast spain france

Have always been fascinated with border towns. The fact that another national economy with other taxes and other social norms is just across the border/mountain/river/fence tends to have interesting effects on these places, and especially what is for sale in the stores and on the streets. Now my most favorite border town in Europe is Portbou on the border of Spain and France:

The tiny shops in the even more tiny city center have ridiculous amounts of Pastis on sale (for the Frenchmen who live just across the mountains where the tax on booze is much higher) and Portbou is home of my favorite memorial (for Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in this place when the Spanish did not let him into the country in 1940).

On top of this the place has an absolutely incredible location: crammed into a little bay of the Mediterranean and surrounded by the foothills of the Pyrénées, the place ca only be approaced by the spectacular coastal road that runs from Perpingnan in France south to Girona in Spain and follows the spectacular Mediterranean coast for a good 30km. Portbou is situated in the smallest of the bays along this coast just south of the actual border. Because it is so small the center has a building density that makes one feel as if one was in a much bigger city, an effect that is reinforced by the gigantic propositions of the railway station. Being a border station between Spain and France the railway station needs two sets of tracks (standard gauge for the French trains and broad gauge for the Spanish trains) plus an enormous marshaling yard. The surface of the railway station probably equals the surface of the rest of town.

I have always wanted to explore this railway station, but on my last 2 visits I never had the time. This time i spend about an hour exploring the station which for the biggest part seems to be deserted, with closed deserted waiting rooms that seem to patiently await another emigration or immigration wave. If you ever have the chance to visit Portbou, make sure that you take some time to visit the train station. In the meanwhile i have posted some pictures to my flickr account.

Portbou seen from the train station

Pairing requests

06 Feb 2006 | 220 words | railways mobile computing berlin amsterdam

Seems like everybody and her mother have bluetooth enabled phones nowadays. In the last few weeks i have had repeated pairing requests from unidentified mobile phones while working on my laptop in the Train. For the uninitiated, a pairing request is a precondition for establishing a connection between two bluetooth devices: The contacted party has to agree to ‘pair’ her device with the requesting device in order to transmit files, interchange data or use it as an input or output device.

Apart from this technical aspect the fact that a window titled ‘pairing request’ pops-up out of nothing on your computer screen also has a romantic connotation to it (though nothing is more annoying than not to find out who send you that request. This can distract you for the rest of a journey). Now all feelings of romance are immediately lost as soon as you see that the pairing request is coming from someone called ‘nokia6820’ or ‘K750i’ or even worse ‘RAZR’ or ‘ROKR’. how lame is that?

If you insist to harass others on the train with your mobile phone it is your first obligation to invest a little bit of time and imagination and give your phone a proper sleazy name. As an example i have renamed my phone from ‘K750i’ to ‘Luigi'.

Pairing request from luigi

ICE 645 02.08.05

02 Aug 2005 | 239 words | amsterdam berlin public transport railways work

Have been on trains a lot the last couple of days. Since saturday i have gone from Amsterdam to Frankfurt back to Amsterdam and now i am almost in Berlin.

Since january i have traveld more than 43.000km by trains. Most of this has been within Germany some of it in Holland and i even took Amtrak from Boston to NYC. My bahn card wich gives me 50% reduction within Germany will expire in a bit over a month and that means that i will need to decide again if ill take a bahncard 50 or if i will go for the luxury of a bahncard 100 (which gives you unlimited free rail travel within Germany for a year and now even includes free public transport in more than 60 german towns all for €3250).

Economically it makes sense to get the bahncard 100 but only as long if i remain going from berlin to Amsterdam and Back three times a month. In other words it only makes sense if my life does not change much. Last year i did chicken out of buying the 100 because i did not trust my relationship or my commitment to my work enough to give both of them another year. Now it is a year further and i need to make this decision again (should have been smarter last year in the first place). I think i feel more confident this year…

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: