My ICE train from Frankfurt to Paris had just left Saarbrücken and entered the snowy landscapes of Lorraine, when the announcement came: Due to the difficult weather conditions, the train manager told us in very apologetic tones (I was half expecting we had to stop the train and walk the rest of the distance), they were obliged to limit the travel speed to 230 km/h (144 mph). Whizzing through the winter wonderland at only 230 km/h (at one point the train seemed to outpace a plane that came in to land at Charles de Gaulle airport) I had time to reflect on the wonders of modern technology which we in the UK can only dream of. It also helped that there was an audio socket where I could plug in my headphones to listen to Bryan Adams’ bare bones acoustic live CD, which I really enjoyed and hadn’t known before, rather than having to listen to the two very talkative blokes on the other side of the aisle. Oh, and the general comfort and space available was comparable to first class carriages in the UK. So I didn’t mind at all that the marginally slower high-speed train would take half an hour longer to get to Paris Est (in the event, it turned out to be only a delay of 25 minutes, of which 8 minutes were already picked up between Frankfurt and Mannheim).
A week earlier I had travelled from London Paddington to Oxford in similar weather conditions. Never mind that the Diesel-guzzling trains on this route would probably disintegrate if they tried to run faster than 120 km/h, but my train spent a full hour sitting on the same spot outside Reading station, where the points had packed up due to the mild frost. Trains from Surrey into London had stopped working altogether the day before my travel, and I had read reports about passengers who had to spend the night on stranded trains.
And I’m not waving the German flag here or advertising the services of Deutsche Bahn and Siemens (who build the ICE trains). In fact, on the way out (Paris to Frankfurt) I had a TGV (run by SNCF and built by Alstom) which catapulted me through the snowy landscapes just as comfortably and without speed limit (Alstom hold the world record for rail engines, as they very helpfully explain in German (!) on the sides of at least some of their TGV engines, so that their competitors in Munich get the message). And on the whole I think the TGVs have a better record on reliability than the ICEs which have had some technical troubles in recent years. (But, of course, TGV and snow wouldn’t have worked as a title.) I’m just wondering why the UK has taken such a spectacularly wrong turn, wrecking its railways at the time when other countries invested in the future of theirs. Here in Oxford, half way between the capital and the second largest city, we’re still waiting for the railway line to be electrified. And not content with being one of the worst rail systems in Europe, ours is also among the most expensive ones (and is set to get more expensive under the pretext of having to finance improvements). Oh, and after yesterday’s political events, we can look forward to higher education following the tracks of the UK’s railways. Comfort and joy, indeed.