The speed indicator at the end of the cabin reads 301 km/h, though I feel no rush as I recline my seat. Outside, one of those glorious, blank, luminous midsummer twilight skies seems so fixed, so tranquil, that we could be motionless. But the high plains of central Spain are slipping by at nearly 190mph beneath us.
Three feet beneath us. You don’t need to leave the ground now to fly. This is the train from Madrid to Barcelona. We slid out of Madrid at 9 and we shall be in Barcelona just after 11.30, a journey of more than 300 miles, which the new AVE high-speed rail service will cover even faster when all is complete. Delay and controversy have attended the construction of this, one of the world’s fastest long-distance railways, but since spring of this year it has been working as its planners dreamt. The last time I travelled this line was on an overnight sleeper between the two cities.
Oh come on, fellow Britons: if Spain can do it, why can’t we? Look at the shape of our island, the distribution of population and the transport bottlenecks. Why are people trekking out to crowded airports to fly between points hardly 100 miles apart? Isn’t it just obvious that Great Britain needs a high-speed rail track running up its spine, from London to Scotland?
ninme bursts into tears
As usual, what’s thwarting my dreams of elegant dinners in the first-class dining car with Myrna Loy is arithmetic. Well, that and the fact that Myrna Loy died in 1993. Let’s just compare passenger trains and airplanes on three trips I’m likely to take for business in the next few months: Denver to Los Angeles, Denver to New York City, and Denver to Washington, DC.
[there's a table here i'm never going to get laid out right in this space]
The table tells the tale, I think. The train is from one and a half to five times as expensive, and takes four and a half to five times as long, turning a four-day trip into seven or eight days.
I can imagine taking the train to New York on vacation, because I am a train nut and the trip would be fun in itself. But let’s think about this as a business trip: taking the train would not only cost about 1.5 times as much — or four times as much with a compartment, and I’m just sure I’d be all set to go right to work in New York after two full days in a coach seat — but it consumes four working days in travel time. I can manage a one-day business trip by plane, but a one-day trip to New York by train is a five-day trip. Subsidies won’t help: counting in the lost time, Amtrak would have to pay me $4,000 to make up for the time difference. The travel time difference is so large that Amtrak couldn’t compete if train tickets were free.
and howls in despair.