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Opinion: The glories of Europe's high-speed rails

(The following column by Tom Belden appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on July 19, 2009.)

AMSTERDAM — A two-week trip to Europe can enlighten in many ways. It can prompt such contrasting thoughts as, "Wow, the Renaissance was a great time to be an artist," and "Did I just pay $4 for a bottle of water?"

But after working through those issues early this month, I found myself doing a little work, thinking about how travelers, whether they're here for business or pleasure, benefit from public investment in transportation.

Using Europe's vast rail system reminded me why the Obama administration is so keen to see the United States spend billions of dollars on high-speed rail projects to reduce congestion and air pollution and provide us greater mobility.

"It's being done," the president said in Washington. "It's just not being done here."

Obama in April cited the success of Europe's high-speed trains when he outlined his reasons for wanting us to spend $13 billion over the next five years to start catching up.

After using trains on almost two dozen trips to Europe since the 1960s, I think what I like and admire the most is the way the various modes of public transport have been made to work together.

Not only is virtually every city in Europe connected by fast trains, but every urban train station is linked to smaller towns and rural areas with a network of local bus or rail service, or both. Europeans are accustomed to walking out of a train station and finding an array of options for reaching their destination.

At most of Europe's major airports, travelers don't have to walk far to find fast trains available every few minutes to whisk them into the center of the city, or intercity trains that can take them on to other places hundreds of miles away.

In recent years, many American cities have done an admirable job in providing better rail service to their airports. But we have a long way to go to match what you experience in arriving at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, or others I've used in Brussels, Frankfurt, London, Paris, and Zurich, to name just the major international airports.

At Schiphol, after claiming luggage and breezing through customs, you emerge into an arrivals hall that is also a major train station. Like other big European stations, it has an array of travelers' services, including a mini-supermarket with takeout food for your train ride.

Tickets are available for travel to anywhere in Europe, and agents will validate a Eurail pass. The train tracks are one level directly below the arrivals hall.

Although it's easier these days to find English-speaking help in much of Europe, the Dutch have always been exceptionally good at it. That makes it an excellent place for an American to arrive, sleep-deprived and bleary eyed after eight-plus hours crammed into a jumbo jet.

From the Schiphol rail station, you can take high-speed trains to Rotterdam and The Hague in the Netherlands, or on to Belgium, France, or Germany. I have caught intercity trains at the Frankfurt and Zurich airports also.

The best online source of information about rail links to airports, not just in Europe but worldwide, that I have found is the Web site of the International Air Rail Organisation or www.iaro.com.

Digging into the site, you'll see that dozens of cities - including 23 in the United States - have some form of rail service that comes directly or indirectly to their airports. In practically all of the U.S. cities, reaching the trains requires using a shuttle bus or walking a good distance to a station outside the terminal that's part of a regional transportation system such as SEPTA.

Philadelphia International Airport's rail service is one of the easier ones to use because the R1 line is between the departures and arrivals buildings. SEPTA trains run every 30 minutes between the airport and 30th Street Station, for Amtrak connections, and to other stops in Center City and the northern suburbs.

The Newark, N.J., and Baltimore airports have the easiest-to-use links to Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line. Airports in Milwaukee and Burbank, Calif., also are on regional Amtrak lines.

For all of the other U.S. airports listed on the International Air Rail Organisation Web site, you may find the rail service more cumbersome to use than what's available in Europe, but at least it's there.

If we do eventually have more high-speed rail lines in this country, one of the greatest challenges U.S. cities and states will face is creating the kind of connections to other modes of public transportation that are commonplace in Europe.

Monday, July 20, 2009

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