Saturday, August 1, 2009

Trains, Trains, and Automobiles

Before even getting on the train yesterday I was already thinking of writing a post about how great the rail network in France is - only to be delayed for an hour and half with engine trouble. It was the first time I've been on a train more than 5 minutes off schedule, and I was a bit stressed only because I had my cats with me and I'd deliberately chosen the shortest possible trip to minimize the time they spent in their carrying case. Not the best time for the train to be so late. On the bright side, the staff came around and gave out bottles of water, which I thought was really sweet. But I felt so bad for the cats that I let them out of their case once Kevin arrived to pick up us, and Lucky ended up relieving himself both ways in the car. Desperation or revenge? I'll never know.

So yesterday's train experience admittedly wasn't ideal. But I still love trains, especially the French ones.
They're clean and pretty stylish, almost always on time, go just about everywhere in the country and Europe, and are pretty reasonably priced if you get your tickets early enough. The TGVs (Train Grande Vitesse or high speed train) are also super fast - they set the world speed record in 2007 of 274.9 mph and average speeds are around 186 mph. For example, the distance between Lyon, where I live, and Paris is 285 miles. By car that takes about 5 hours if you don't hit too much traffic. But on the TGV, you go from city center to city center in 2 hours! One of my neighbors actually works in Paris, which is a hell of a commute, but still doable. For me it's just nice to be able to go to Paris for a quick visit, and for many destinations it's actually much quicker than driving. The only drawback: the not-infrequent strikes the French are famous for. But you can't have everything, can you?

Here I am on the TGV from Paris to Lyon when my brother came for a visit. You can tell from that huge smile how much I love riding trains, right?

I've always loved trains, I'm not sure why exactly. But since I always request a window seat I think it big part of it is just watching the landscape roll by. Or maybe the freedom of being able to wander around the aisles, or hang out in the dining car for a change of scenery. Once when I was 20 and on an Amtrak from Michigan to Massachusetts, I was seated in the dining car with a very handsome Australian vet who was traveling around the US. We talked (ok, flirted) for hours and he gave me his address in Australia. Not sure if I kept it, but that was a very exciting moment for me - maybe that's where the positive association with trains comes from!

Admittedly, I love planes too; for the bird's eye view especially. One of the most breathtaking things I've seen was flying towards Lyon with the Alps
so close I felt like I could reach out the window and caress the snow-tipped peaks. But my ecological conscience has issues with flying, though it's hard to resist sometimes given the super cheap fares you can find nowadays. I was able to go to Rome and Berlin last summer for outrageously low prices, and to assuage my conscience I checked the box to offset my carbon consumption with a donation to some kind of forest in Ecuador. I felt a little less guilty, and I loved those trips. But in an effort to reduce my carbon footprint I've been trying to take the train whenever possible rather than being seduced by the cheap fares. Besides, flying the low-cost airlines hasn't ever been a great experience, so in the end I'm not sure it's worth the extra hassle and the carbon emissions to save a few bucks.

I'm really happy about my summer plans in that sense, because I'm traveling only by train to Amsterdam, London, and several different places in France, with just a little bit of driving. That's part of what's great about Europe: you can go pretty short distances and find yourself in a completely different country and culture. And since they built the tunnel under the English Channel, you can even go to England via Eurostar. I'm a little freaked out at the idea of being underwater, and I definitely won't have much of a view. But I'm excited to be able to ride the train to an island!

So trains are just another thing to love about France, and I really hope that someday people in the US will know the joys of a fast, efficient, and affordable rail system. I've read that Obama is really interested in the French TGV and will invest lots of dough in rail lines, so perhaps that's in the cards. If you do ever get the TGV in the US, you'll know where to find me!

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