If you scroll down across this blog, you will most definitely realise that I am a 'railway enthusiast'. Trains are indeed a childhood passion that over the years became my main hobby, but more importantly became a political belief too. Railways offer a more comfortable, cleaner, greener, quieter, quicker alternative to any other mode of transport. It allows us to also be productive instead of boringly driving, and therefore take our workplace and our home out there, on the move. High speed (i.e. railway solutions that exceed 200 km/h) is something I also believe in, although I believe it has to be built wisely. Many people (including myself until now) believe America should build high speed railways between its metropoles, and would hugely benefit from it. I'm starting to think that it may not... well not precisely. Here's why.
In Europe, it is usually believed that train journeys under three hours become more attractive than flying. This is roughly how long a Los Angeles - San Francisco train journey would look like with high speed rail. Nowadays, taking the train between both cities is a mission, driving takes about 6 hours, while flying is a quick and comfy one-and-a-half-hour treat... There are many cities in this situation in the US: Acela Express, America's only high-speed-ish service, connects Washington to Boston (via Philadelphia and New York) in 6 hours and this could be cut further with a dedicated high speed line.
So why is this not best for America? The development of a US-wide high speed network has been really late compared to that of Europe. High speed in Europe has dramatically changed the way people travel, but it has also enabled travellers to connect easily to other rail services (regional, standard inter-city, etc.). The US has none of that: the territories crossed are far wider and less dense, and there are very few regional networks to connect to. Therefore, high speed rail in America might be a good alternative to flying or driving long hours, but it is not an integrated solution.
What should we do then? If there is no need to build high speed railways in sync with smaller regional networks, why not skip a generation and offer new alternatives to railways themselves? High speed rail has been around for the past 40 years - America could innovate and come forward with a new technology taking them all the way to the 22nd century. Asia has maglev trains, the US could be the pioneer in building the hyperloop.
A hyperloop would offer city-to-city services at the speed of a plane, without the usual airport fuss and irritating carbon footprint. It would be much faster than high speed rail (about three times) and of course wayyy faster than cars (9-10x).
While the East Coast might be too dense for this solution, California and the Midwest would be fantastic places to try this new system. Ultimately, one could see services running from East to West, with a journey time of 5-6 hours (according to the Amtrak website it takes about 60 hours by train to cross the entire country nowadays).
I remember visiting the 2010 High Speed Fair at Philadelphia 30th St Station when I lived there. The event was minuscule compared to what a similar event in Europe might look like - however there was clear enthusiasm about bringing high speed corridors to the US. Six years later, not much has happened in that department, while the question of mobility has evolved dramatically thanks to up-and-coming thinkers like Elon Musk. If America wishes to join Europe, Japan and China in that great public transport adventure, maybe it should wisely decide to skip high speed trains and to show the world instead how Hyperloop's done. The ball is in your court!
Scotland may be the perfect place for road trips. The North Coast 500 route is a great itinerary through the wild north of the country - Scotland's response to Route 66. If you wish to see the core of Scotland, you may want to rent a car and go explore. However, if like me you believe public transport is just as good, safer, and allows you to relax and enjoy the scenery, then let me show you how I managed to do that in three days. You can adjust this express itinerary to longer formats.
Step 1: Fall asleep in England, wake up in the Highlands
I travelled from England to Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper, which is a great way to already be way up North in the morning of day 1. The 'Deerstalker' line will get you into Fort William for 10am (you can also board this train from Edinburgh at 4 in the morning). Here's train lover Mark Smith (the man in Seat 61) presenting his own Sleeper experience. Note that you can also book seats instead of berths, which will end up being much cheaper too.
Fort William is lovely: it has all the amenities and services one needs, and is a great starting point to discover the West Highlands. It is largely dedicated to outdoor activities, so spend the right amount of time there according to your interest for hiking, mountain biking, etc.
Step 2: A Hogwartsy feeling on your way to Mallaig
From Fort William, your next step has to be Mallaig. The railway to get there is the famous West Highland railway - a breathtaking stretch across mountains, lochs, and the renowned Glenfinnan Viaduct. You can take the regular regional trains or board the Jacobite train - which is basically the Hogwarts Express!
Step 3: All aboard the Skye boat!
Once in Mallaig, it may feel like you've reached the tip of Great Britain. You haven't though - this ain't Land's End or John O'Groats! From Mallaig, regular ferry services will take you across to Armadale on the Isle of Skye.
Skye will be the only portion of trip requiring taking a bus. Stagecoach has good summer timetables in place across the island - please check if travelling during the year. There are plenty of online guides to Skye, so do check what you wish to see on the island, which is one of Scotland's true gems.
You won't need a boat to leave Skye - it is the only island with bridge access to the mainland. Buses will take you across the Skye bridge into Kyle of Lochalsh, another little town with a terminal railway station. The service from Kyle to Inverness is jaw-dropping, switching between loch views, naked hills, and large forests.
Step 4: back to the central Highlands - your move!
Inverness requires no introduction: it is the capital of the Highlands, and has literally all the comfort a British city can offer. It is a genuine town with a gorgeous river front. From there, you have access to much more: tours of Loch Ness, trains up North towards Wick, eastbound to Aberdeen, or south on the Highland Main Line. Edinburgh and Glasgow are less than four hours away, and there is a Caledonian Sleeper service down to London that leaves at 20:44.
This was a very quick overview and what can be done by public transport. What strikes me every time is how different the trips are: railways rarely meet roads, and therefore offer brand new exciting opportunities. You may know Corrour station, Britain's highest and most isolated station, that is also a cosy hotel and restaurant. Although the number of railways in Scotland is limited, trains do run on them and will do a perfect job at showing you the country around.
My trip was an express one, condensed in three days but giving me enough time to enjoy every minute of it. That is, in my opinion, the greatest point about train travel. Without the pain of driving, you constantly soak up the atmosphere, on or off the train. You can, however, extend this itinerary for a full week or more. My entire trip was done by booking tickets very early on (each advance railcard ticket was less than £10). Alternatively, the new Spirit of Scotland travelpass will give you the flexibility you may want if you cherish the freedom of driving and still need to be convinced.
Go out there and enjoy!
The recent days have seen several announcements and pledges made by the UN and global leaders to ... well, to make a world a better place asap. Why should we trust them particularly this time? In the past years, most global companies - mostly tech ones - have launched their own programmes to support what they're best at. Mark Zuckerberg's speaking at the UN yesterday was a hugely symbolic event. With both companies and their leaders spending billions not only on charitable causes but also on development opportunities, we have reasons to believe this could make a difference this time. Here's a quick overview of what to keep an eye on. Do not hesitate to contact me if you've heard of more interesting projects!
Facebook wants to #connecttheworld
Mark Zuckerberg achieved the incredible task to connect over 1 billion people on this planet. At his latest Townhall Q&A session on 16 September he admitted that he could only think about the 6 billion remaining. Let's face it: the first 1 billion were definitely the easiest to drag onto social media. Now Zuckerberg and Facebook want to offer internet access to remote and disadvantaged areas of the planet. Yesterday him and Bono stated:
"When people have access to the tools and knowledge of the internet, they have access to opportunities that make life better for all of us." (The Connectivity Declaration)
By empowering people and peoples with access to the internet we will offer an incredible commodity just as important as clean water or electricity.
Facebook has two main projects: internet.org (to offer essential internet services, country by country) and Aquila, a giant drone flying over remote areas and offering them
Google: sun, roofs and maps
Google has been involved in many projects for years, especially environmental ones. You can access Google Green for more information. A new fantastic project has caught my attention recently: Project Sunroof, which proves that we already have most of the tools to make those changes happen.
Project Sunroof uses Google Maps as well as other factors to map which houses, streets and neighbourhoods offer the best opportunities to install solar panels. As those are becoming cheaper and cheaper, Google wants to offer each and everyone an opportunity to make that transition as easy as possible. When I discovered Google Earth and Maps (that must have been nearly 10 years ago...) I was astonished by how many houses I was able to virtually spy on. Now imagine that each of those houses and gardens that you can observe on satellite and street images get a chance to potentially save on their energy bills and go carbon neutral. Now you see why this project is a golden one.
Sadly, mapping and analysing each house on this planet is a tedious task, and the project is only available in the Boston and San Francisco bay areas as well as Fresno, CA at the moment. All we can hope is for the team to grow and for them to cover as many places as possible soon! (come do Scotland, I'm sure you'll find a way to get us solar power across those thick clouds).
Visit the website and watch this video!
Virgin & Richard Branson on a green war
Richard Branson's Necker Island is not only a place for great kitesurfing and decadent holidays, it is also the home to many exciting projects. As the island is going completely carbon neutral this year, it is also where two great projects were born. Firstly the Elders, a group of global actors and leaders formed in 2007 and behind the #GlobalGoals announcements earlier this week. Secondly the Carbon War Room, an organisation promoting the reduction of CO2 emissions and offering prizes to whoever will find ways to extract carbon out of the Earth's atmosphere. More reasons to remain optimistic and get involved.
I will be adding more global projects soon. Please contact me or drop a comment below if there's anything you believe is worth adding!
As Twitter is launching its new #FitnessFriday hashtag I will force myself to give it a quick thought through this post. Two things came to my mind.
1. I remember dreading PE lessons in secondary school. All I could expect from each session was a large competition where unsurprisingly, the tallest would get the best mark at long jump, the biggest would struggle to get a pass at athletics, the one who can afford Wednesday afternoon gymnastics lessons would do great at it, and the football fans would beg teachers to mark their football skills. I was a year younger than most people in my class, and I was entitled, as a result, to get a slightly better mark for equal performances. My task at the beginning of each school year was therefore to remind my PE teacher about that rule. A tiny win in that stressful mess.
2. Now that I am in the final process of my PhD and writing my thesis, I have recently decided that I absolutely needed to find a way to keep my motivation flowing, but also to plug off my mind at least once a day. Surprisingly, very surprisingly, I have discovered that sports could bring that to me, although I had spent the previous 24 years denying that. By starting my average writing day with a few dozen laps in the swimming pool, my mind is absolutely cleared for the morning; all ready to go after that. No performance, no comparison. This is the kind of sports I had never been introduced to. I think Nike Women perfectly illustrated the feeling that many twenty-something year-olds like me felt.
So why don't we teach our schoolkids that a good day should include such effort? I do not agree with those who believe there shouldn't be any marks at school, but I definitely think that PE is not one of the subjects where an assessment should take place. Let's give physical education a meaning again by making schoolkids start or finish their school day with an hour of pure exercise, focused on each individual's development rather than a performance compared to the other students. Let's also teach them about healthy eating by the same token, by therefore giving a meaning to the old cheesy mens sana in corpore sano. If we want to offer successful education to the next generation of citizens, we cannot let them start in life in mediocre conditions.
You can watch Jamie Oliver's Sugar Rush on All4 for more views on education and healthy practices.
English abstract available at the end of this article.
Avec la récente concrétisation du projet Léman 2030 entre Genève et Lausanne, la décision populaire d'appeler le nouveau RER du Grand Genève "Léman Express", et le choix d'une double flotte franco-suisse pour ce dernier, le développement des transports publics autour du Lac Léman est enfin en cours de structuration. C'est en effet une nécessité que de penser à l'avenir d'une zone unique, transfrontalière, largement influencée par ses caractéristiques géographiques, et en plein développement.
Comme j'en parlais il y a quelques mois, ces développements permettent de délivrer tout le potentiel d'une région dont la mobilité reste à ce jour particulièrement délicate. Pourtant, un grand paradoxe existe encore et toujours : celui de la ligne du Tonkin, ce petit tronçon à l'est d'Évian en direction de la frontière suisse à St-Gingolph. Une fois la ligne CEVA complétée, le Tonkin sera le seul chaînon manquant dans l'arc lémanique ferroviaire. Je tiens à rappeler à quel point sa réouverture est cruciale.
Les projets Léman 2030 et Léman Express ont la double ambition de désengorger et de faciliter les déplacements (d'une part), et d'anticiper les futurs augmentations de flux de passagers (d'autre part). Sur ce dernier point, il parait insensé de vouloir concentrer tous ces effort sur un seul axe (l'axe Nord Annemasse-Genève-Lausanne-Montreux) quand un axe sud (Annemasse-Évian-St Gingolph-St Maurice) ne demande qu'à être inclus.
En s'amusant un peu à faire des calculs (en estimant le trajet Lausanne-Genève en 30mn, Genève-Annemasse en 20mn, Annemasse-Évian en 45mn, Évian-St Gingolph en 20mn), on se rend compte qu'il serait plus judicieux de voyager d'Annemasse à St Maurice via le sud du Léman, laissant ainsi le Léman Express aux larges flux pendulaires attendus. La construction d'un court tronçon de connexion à l'embouchure du Rhône pourrait même rendre les connexions vers Villeneuve et Montreux plus attractives.
Comme l'association RER Sud-Léman tient à le démontrer, la région du Tonkin, à la géographie étroite mais sublime, bénéficierait énormément de cette ligne au niveau local, délestant la route départementale dangereuse et saturée en redirigeant une partie du trafic sur des trains cadencés, plus silencieux et propres.
Cet amour pour le train que la Suisse, la région Rhône-Alpes et le Léman partagent rendent le cas du Tonkin encore plus paradoxal et surprenant. Si l'on tient réellement à penser les flux du futur non pas jusqu'à 2030, mais bien au-delà, il est absolument nécessaire de planifier la réouverture de ce petit tronçon et l'extension en conséquence des services CFF vers Évian et/ou TER vers St Gingolph.
Dans mon projet de thèse doctorale sur le voyage dans les Alpes pendant le Siècle des Lumières, je remarque que de nombreux voyageurs s'étonnent des conditions difficiles sur la rive sud du Léman (la rive de Rousseau et de Julie), alors que sur la rive Nord les voyageurs se ruent entre Genève et Lausanne pour admirer confortablement la vue sur les Alpes et rejoindre le Simplon. Ne commettons pas cette erreur une nouvelle fois.
Si le bateau a toujours été un formidable outil sur le Léman, il ne faut pas oublier d'en terminer la réalisation ferroviaire.
English abstract: the region of Lake Geneva is currently making significant progress in the evolution of its railway system. Under the project name "Léman 2030", the increasingly-saturated line between Geneva and Lausanne will see its number of tracks doubled, journey times improved and a brand new fleet of double-decker trains able to anticipate the constant rise of passengers. In addition to that, the Swiss network is finally being connected to the French one with the opening of CEVA in 2019 (read more in one of my previous articles). Despite these ambitious projects, one final section of Lake Geneva is yet to be reopened: the 'Tonkin line' between Évian and the Swiss border. Although this line seems minor, its potential is enormous as it will offer many alternatives to passengers who nowadays rush to the saturated north line between Geneva and Lausanne. If we wish to think beyond 2030, we must consider this tiny section which will finally complete the railway loop all around Lake Geneva.
This is a vicious circle. Who will start first then?
Living in Edinburgh gives you a particular perspective on transport. The Central Belt of Scotland (roughly Glasgow / Stirling / Fife / Edinburgh) is a highly urbanised region far, far North in Great Britain. Transports are therefore very well developed, with many suburban train lines, subways in Glasgow and trams in Edinburgh. Intertown buses are well developed (in Fife for example), and it is fairly easy to navigate in the region. However, coming originally from France (a country that has built -too?- many high speed lines), travelling to the South or to Europe remains a mission. Trains to London are frequent and comfortable, but they still take at least four and a bit hours. As for the North of Scotland, where tourism and outdoor activities are well developed, the choice remains pretty weak.
Therefore, a new railway line project in the region is always interesting, which is why I am trying to stay updated on the Borders Railway project which is underway and should open in 2016. I won't explain the whole project, but the idea is to reopen an old line stretching between Waverley and Tweedbank. This is not a high-speed line and it will not be linked to any other railway on the way. It is a cul-de-sac line from/to Edinburgh which will make commuters' journeys far more enjoyable than what buses can offer.
Don't get me wrong: this project is a promising one. Towns like Galashiels or Tweedbank (or St Andrews, but this is a different story...) should have their own stations, trains, and all that lovely/bonkers railway universe I read too much about when I was a child. Those towns did have all of that, many years ago, until the GB network was gradually deboned.
However, although I fiercely support it, reopening old railway lines is extremely delicate in terms of symbols. As a Historian in the making, I am seeing this debate as a dangerous conflict between Securing the Future and Blaming the Past.
Historians often have to differentiate History from Memory: we need to address and question the past, not criticise it and blame it. The same has to be done here. Pretty awful railway policies were undertaken in the second part of the 20th century, that is true. It is extremely stupid to rebuild something that our ancestors decided to destroy, true again. Then we need to make sure that public transport isn't just a trend, but a sustainable investment that will still make sense in fifty years time.
At the moment, for many reasons (irregular timetables, fares that aren't always fair, some stations' questionable location), not enough has been done to convince local populations that public transport is a real and durable alternative to cars. When it comes to what railways mean, each small line such as the Borders Railway (or the one near my French hometown, which I will not rant about just yet), is bound to all similar ones in the country. Opening one "for fun" makes little sense, but having a nationwide coordinated network with many destinations to offer does at a completely different scale.
Thus, if we are going to keep spending m(b?)illions of pounds to accommodate public transport users, let's make sure these people aren't a minority anymore. Marketers, Communicators, Policy Makers, it is time to brag and brand.
La grande vitesse change bel et bien les distances et les vies des personnes... Utilisons cette incroyable faculté avec précaution.
High-speed rail really does change people's lives and distances between each other. Let's use that amazing power carefully.
My PhD project is looking at how our current spatial perception of the Alps as a region was built during the Enlightenment and facilitated by the development of networks and routes throughout the Alpine space. One of the key areas witnessing this process, I believe, is the vicinity of Lake Geneva. It certainly lies in a unique location, between Alpine and Jura mountains, and across state borders. It is by all means a borderland, a place of transition between different regions, different topographies, and different societies.
As a result, Lake Geneva has always been a particular experience for travellers and explorers. It has challenged perceptions and representations of nature, knowledge, and science. I am currently browsing dozens of British travel accounts expressing the authors' relationship with water, with mountaineering, or au contraire how Rousseau and Voltaire became Lake Geneva's top attractions beyond its extraordinary natural features.
However, this article is not meant to be historical. In 2014, Lake Geneva continues to be a crucial space of transnational interactions. Geneva is building its cross-border metropolis, yet transport is once again not up to what one should expect. So we have two transport spotlights today.
Only a fool would deny Geneva's international and transnational status. I am not even referring to the handfuls of International Organisations based in the UN quarter. More importantly, Geneva is nearly entirely surrounded by French territories. About 70,000 French workers cross the Franco-Swiss border every morning to work in Geneva; considering the current exchange rate, we can assume that as many Genevese do the opposite journey to go shopping in France at weekends. This is the normal balance which you can find elsewhere along the border, near Basel or Neuchâtel. Annemasse (a few miles away across customs) has become the suburb of Geneva. And yet, these two are not linked by a railway.
The project, nearly as old as Geneva's membership in the Swiss confederation, has never been finalised. This should finally be operational by the end of this decade. Named CEVA, the railway will link Geneva's main station to its little cousin located in the Eaux Vives neighbourhood (still in Switzerland, but managed by the French railway authorities and used as a terminus for trains from Savoy). Moreover, with the creation of intermediate underground stops, this will create an actual network centred on Geneva but reaching more than 50 cities, towns, villages and neighbourhoods, regardless of which side of the border they are on. The use of regional trains to create high-frequency underground networks in city centres is not new, as you can see in other Swiss cities but also in Paris, London, Glasgow or most German cities. Let's hope fares will remain simple, as the network will spread across different currencies and different transport authorities.
When it comes to Lake Geneva, the question of borders is more alive than ever. While the Franco-Swiss border lies for most parts at the middle of the lake, some of the borderline has been drawn on dry land, which creates all sorts of network-related issues. This is what happened with the Tonkin railway between Evian and St Gingolph.
The line between Evian and St Gingolph (which physically exists) is no longer in service and therefore will soon become the only missing railway link around Lake Geneva. Why does this matter so much? Why is it worth comparing it to the very urban CEVA line, whilst the total population along the Tonkin railway is less than 10,000?
Well, let's look at the evidence from micro to macro scale.
- Located at the foot of the Alps, this region is of course very mountainous. Only one road follows the same route: that road is too narrow and runs through the centre of each town and village, which has of course led to countless deadly crashes, as local newspapers often relate. The hardest part of the job has already been done: there is a railway that only needs to be modernised. This will finally be a safe, eco-friendly and less noisy alternative. Currently stopping right at the border, at the heart of the bi-national town of St Gingolph, most people's lives are not this easily drawable and it is urgent to offer this service again.
- For the whole population of the south bank of Lake Geneva (including Geneva itself!), the line will allow a new route to emerge from Geneva (via CEVA) all the way to Canton Valais, famous for its ski resorts, spa towns, and other local curiosities. The Geneva-Lausanne line, on the northern side of the lake, is saturated and it is crucial to offer a sensible alternative for those who would find the southern route more convenient.
- This line does not have to be a local one. When put together with the rest of Lake Geneva, it will recreate a truly international network, binding together Geneva's famous airport and exhibition centre, Evian's thermal facilities and world-class golf courses, Montreux's Swiss Riviera, Lausanne's scientific centres, numerous International Organisations, and of course the Alps.
A local association is fighting to see the line reopened. You can see their promotional film (still fictional in 2014...) below.
My PhD research shows that Geneva was one of the first and most crucial places of interactions for travellers heading towards the Alpine region. When Napoleon was defeated in 1814-15, British travellers rushed back to the Alps, which they had not been able to visit since the end of the previous century. Two places were particularly important in that process: the road from Geneva to Savoy (to allow travellers to reach Chamonix and Mont-Blanc) and the eastern edge of the lake (where foreigners would sail in order to witness the place where Rousseau imagined the story of Julie). Nowadays, both places have evidently lost their top place in Geneva's travel network. Let's hope that an article written in 2020 will revise this statement.
Here they are, up and running! On 31st May Edinburgh's new tram network opened to the public after years and years of chaotic construction and months of tests. I finally got the opportunity to hop on one of the CAF trams, albeit at the worst time possible (see tweet below). I could surely focus this review on the tram experience itself: how comfortable the trams are, how traffic light priority on Princes Street could be improved, or how to understand the ticketing system. However I will focus on what this new blog will be all about: the development of networks, or how to make sure that people and places are connected in the best way. If the current route map is overall satisfactory, we should nonetheless hope for further extensions in order to prevent Edinburgh's tram from becoming just a glorified Airlink.
The route which opened at the end of May 2014 features undeniable perks: it runs at the heart of the city and all the way to the airport, calls at Murrayfield Stadium and through a variety of neighbourhoods. Equally it offers connections to most of Edinburgh's train stations: Waverley (well, nearly), Haymarket, and Edinburgh Park. This allows new types of connections: for instance, if you are coming from Stirling or Falkirk and heading to Edinburgh Airport, Edinburgh Park will be the connecting station for you, instead of Haymarket.
This process of relieving congestion on major hubs and cutting connection time must continue. Although Haymarket is now huge and shiny, it will keep growing as a major connecting station for Scotland (between for example services from the West and the North-East) and for Edinburgh's West End at a local level. In order to avoid saturation, other types of airport and city connections for passengers coming from the North have to be created. The building of Edinburgh Gateway station will certainly help, although moving South Gyle station a few hundred yards closer to Gyle Centre could have worked better (the journey between Waverley and Forth Rail Bridge will seem even longer when the new Gogar rail-air-tram link opens in 2016). I was being a bit sarcastic about my first tram ride, unexpectedly filled with One Direction groupies heading to Murrayfield Station. However, that probably was the first real test for the network, and most of the things I saw can be written down and applied to daily airport and commute flows. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised to see that many got off the train at Edinburgh Park to catch a slightly less crowded inbound tram instead of facing Haymarket's mess.
More importantly, the extension of the tram beyond York Place will have to be questioned as soon as possible. Waiting for good feedback about the current tram route will not help (and I'm afraid the waste of money already occurred across the numerous times of uncertainty which the building phase of the tram witnessed). As everyone knows, a tram line is always more popular, reassures those who are never too sure about buses' itineraries, and sends a strong message on how a city should be planned and interconnected. For all these reasons, the North-East of the city must be able to enjoy Edinburgh's new tram. Elm Row, Leith Walk, Leith Shore, the new Scottish Government building, and Ocean Terminal are more than suited to host the tram. This will support the economic development of a promising part of the city as well as re-galvanise the shopping centre, currently not at its peak.
Above all, there is a real need to drag the tram away from the mere airport question. Yes, we now have more choice in order to go catch our flights, and the current extension of the airport is very exciting. However, the tram has already done so much more for Edinburgh: it has started changing the face of the city, and it should keep doing so by pushing its east terminus away from the cosy centre, to go get some extra sunshine on Leith.
Simplified presentation of tram (red), rail (black) and air connections.