Earlier this year, after a long and bloody battle, the executives at Air France raised the white flag. Faced with a plummeting share of the Paris-to-Brussels market, the airline abandoned that route. Instead, it rebooked passengers on the high-speed train that makes the trip in just 85 minutes.
Air France's retreat marked a major event in the annals of transportation: never before had fast trains driven an airline from the skies. But since the 1981 debut of the TGV, Europe's trains have been on a high-speed roll. Rockets on rails now whoosh across France, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal at speeds between 135 and 185 mph. In the next few years, Austria, Britain, and the Netherlands hope to join this elite club. (Japan, meanwhile, has been running its bullet train since 1964.)
For visitors to Europe, the impact of fast trains has been particularly profound. The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 and the recent completion of the TGV Méditerranée line in the south of France means that you can have a traditional English breakfast in London, hop aboard a Eurostar, change trains in Paris, and arrive in Marseilles for a late lunch of bouillabaisse. Not long ago, the same trip required either a costly air ticket or roughly 20 hours of travel in two trains and a ferry—longer if rough seas delayed the Channel crossing.
RIDING ON HIGH-SPEED TRAINS IS ANYTHING BUT ROCKY. They practically glide along the tracks, causing nary a ripple in your flute of champagne. You can carry on as many bags as you wish, kindle conversation or duck it, spread out a picnic with the countryside as a backdrop, stop off for an impromptu excursion, and even—given the refuge of a private compartment—make love.
And train sex is safe sex, so to speak. The U.S. National Safety Council estimates that rail passengers are 23 times safer than motorists. Moreover, trains are generally powered by electricity, far less damaging to the environment than automobiles or planes.
That's just the beginning. Robert O. Paxton, professor emeritus of social sciences at Columbia University, credits Europe's sophisticated rail network with fueling the continent's economic and cultural renaissance. "Trains have decongested airports and highways and added enormously to Europe's prosperity," says Paxton, who points to Lyons as a high-speed success story. It was only after the TGV cut the journey from Paris roughly in half, down to two hours, that the once-sleepy city blossomed into a regional commerce center and transportation hub.
Some industrialists envisage an even more ambitious transportation system for Europe: maglevs, or magnetic levitation vehicles that would zip from capital to capital at 330 mph. Powerful electromagnets, installed in the maglev's wraparound "arms" and the monorail guideway they hug, lift the 46-ton train off the ground so it can be propelled forward without friction—the main impediment to speed in conventional trains. Backers of the Transrapid Europa, a prototype maglev in Germany, hype it as "Aladdin's dream come true." They began exporting the technology to China after the German government canceled a proposed maglev line between Hamburg and Berlin.
But that act was an exception: most high-speed rail companies receive massive government subsidies to cover operating costs and R&D. France, for example, not only shelled out billions of dollars building TGV Méd but offered to buy up every house within 100 meters of the line. "The French aren't afraid of spending money on collective infrastructure," notes Paxton.
The same cannot be said of automobile-adoring Americans. The new Acela Express hurtles between Washington, D.C., and Boston at 150 mph, and a high-speed project in Florida is inching forward. Nonetheless, Mark R. Dysart, president of the High Speed Ground Transportation Association, estimates that our train system lags 50 years behind Europe's. In May, activists filed a petition with the Maine Surface Transportation Board demanding fast rail service for the state—specifically, trains capable of trundling along at a top speed of 79 miles per hour.
New York writer David Wallis has contributed to The New Yorker, Esquire, and the Observer of London.