Why trains are sometimes faster than air travel

A few years ago, when I was staying with relatives in the Netherlands, we decided to spend a few days in Paris – three countries and many hundreds of kilometres away.

It was spring when I took this picture of a railway station in Soest, Netherlands.
It was kind of early when I took this picture of the platform in Soest, Netherlands.

There were all sorts of ways of doing it, including by driving. Or we could have spent a lot of time driving to Schiphol, hung around in the terminal, done all the security checks, and taken a flight – arriving at Orly with more dragging-around time before trying to find a shuttle into central Paris, where we were staying near the Gare du Nord railway station.

Or we could do what we actually did, which was to jump on an intercity commuter unit from Soest to Amsterdam, walk across a few platforms at the Amsterdam terminal, and board the Eurostar which then whisked us at 160 km/h  as far as the Belgian border – at which point they opened up the taps and we crossed France at around 300 km/h. It’s to do with speed limits on the national rail systems.

The net result was that we got from Soest to Gare du Nord in five hours, which was a good deal less time than if we’d taken the plane.

The point is that if the train’s fast enough, it’ll beat air travel over certain distances because of the lag-times fiddling about getting to the airport, then waiting for the pre-flight procedures and so forth.

I took this picture inside the Gare du Nord, Paris.

That’s why high-speed trains were developed in the first place, and it’s why there has been so much effort put into ratcheting train speed and energy efficiency up a few more notches via mag-lev systems, which do away with wheels in favour of magnetic fields. The same logic underpins Elon Musk’s Hyperloop system, which is faster still.

Needless to say, all this was already thought of by Robert A. Heinlein, who portrayed a similar system in his 1953 novel Starman Jones. His ‘trains’ were rail-less, effectively ‘flying’ between towers fitted with pass-through loops and ring-magnets – and doing so at supersonic speed.

Heinlein also thought about the hazards. High winds could dislodge the train from its trajectory between the ‘pass-along’ rings – with disastrous consequences. And woe betide anybody caught in a tunnel when a train went through: the shock wave, in that confined space, would always be lethal.

Neither issue will be a problem for the ‘Hyperloop’ or any of the similar systems being developed around the world, because they’ll run in closed tubes. And it’s all perfectly possible with today’s technology – all that’s needed is the money, coupled with a system that offers lower costs than air travel.

Could we imagine such a system crossing oceans? Sure. And Harry Harrison did, in his hilarious novel A Transatlantic Tunnel: Hurrah! (1972) – an ‘alternative universe’ story in which atomic-powered steam locomotives took ordinary trains to a transit point off Britain’s Western Approaches, where they transferred to a pontoon-suspended underwater tube-and-hyperloop style system that took them to Britain’s greatest colony… America.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017


3 thoughts on “Why trains are sometimes faster than air travel

  1. Not exactly on topic, but I always wished I could have the memory possessed by the protagonist in Starman Jones.

    I remember reading somewhere that trains are by far the most cost-effective transportation system in the world. Airplanes definitely require a lot more TLC than locomotives!

    1. I wish I could remember things that way too. I get as far as knowing I’ve read something, not remembering exactly what it was, then having to scrabble for it back in the source, where I usually can’t remember exactly where I saw it. I like to think it’s the same thing as Max Jones but without the fidelity of resolution…:-)

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