Diary of an Expat, Part 64
ICE ICE baby
I live in Berlin.

Berlin is perhaps not, the opinions of its residents notwithstanding, the be-all and end-all of German cities. It turns out there's a whole country out there, and some of the other cities have their own claims. For example, although I love it dearly, Berlin's Tegel airport is not the largest airport in the world. It is not even the largest airport in Germany.

(It's not even the second :( )

That honor goes to Rhein-Main-Flughafen, the central airport over in Frankfurt that happens to be the eighth-biggest airport in the world by passenger traffic. Among other things (such as the fact that nobody speaks German there, because it's a major transshipment hub) this means that international flights can be substantially cheaper there than from Berlin.

When I traveled back to the United States last time, I did so through Frankfurt. On my outbound leg, because I had an early-morning flight, I flew from Tegel to Frankfurt; on my leisurely return, I decided instead to take a train. So let's talk about that, because I've talked about the intracity trains before and only briefly remarked on the institution that is the national rail system.

Frankfurt to Berlin is a journey that crosses most of the country. If you fly, the flight is about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Of course, then you figure in getting to the airport an hour early, and maybe 30 minutes to deplane and get your bag, and the hassle of security. So it's perhaps three hours all told, and kind of a pain, mostly with the bureaucracy.

(incidentally my visa apparently gives me a strange and mysterious power. Two times, both when clearing outbound customs at Frankfurt and reentering the country two weeks later, I got a sour look from the harried Polizei behind the counter — you know, the "ah another bloody Yank" look. Then they got to my visa, smiled, handed me back my passport, and waved me on through)

I bought my ticket in advance, and I chose to buy a first-class ticket. This kicked the price up to about ninety euro on the ICE, the high-speed rail system, traveling through Hanau, Fulda, Kassel and Points East. This, with seven intermediate stops, takes all of four hours.

When you travel first-class by German rail (this was a ten-euro charge, lest you think I have a desire to flaunt my... wealth...) you get to sit in a seat with actual leg room. It has a table, if you desire. It has working power, if you want to plug in a computer. It has a menu, and a very nice German lady who offers to bring you coffee, or food. It's kind of like what long-distance travel would be like if long-distance travel was civilized.

Then, rather than worrying about fasten-seatbelt signs and turning your electronics off and trying to figure out which parts of the microwaved monstrosity that's been set before you are even edible, you look out your massive window and watch the German countryside roll away. You see the forests, and the spinning wind turbines, and green fields, and you hear the rush of a passing train on the adjacent tracks, heading back from where you've came, off towards the sunset.

When you reach your destination, you take your bag, and you get off. And that's it. No muss, no fuss.

Civilization is a pretty cool thing sometimes. This is, anyway, not really an experience you have in the United States, Acela being forced to run below targeted speeds for most of its length. And anyway I won't go into the myriad excuses for why long-distance rail Just Won't Work in the United States; as I said in my diary on cars, whether Americans think it will or will not is as irrelevant as whether they thought the world was going to end on December 21st.

I will say that it's something Americans need to think carefully about. Long-distance rail is certainly an investment, although in general public transport is a profitable investment — Deutsche Bahn booked income of 1.9 billion euros on 34.4 billion euros in revenue in 2010, and that's to say nothing of the increased revenue from property taxes, etc. that public transport stimulates.

Nonetheless it does entail, in all likelihood, a change in urban engineering. European cities tend to be structured with mass transit systems at their heart, which permits easy access to the surrounding area at the terminus. This is not how we think about airports, and it's something of a paradigm shift in treating travel. In the United States, where so much of the rolling stock — and corresponding rail — is cargo traffic, this also implies the possible need for new, dedicated track to be laid.

You can do this under some emergency bond, presumably, or you can do it as part of a calculated, long-term strategy that takes into account the dwindling years of affordable long-distance air and car travel. The former is what will happen; the latter is what should. And this is why you should support high-speed rail bonds, because you're going to have to one of these days anyway.

And let me tell you, it's a hell of a way to get around.
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