This article is a personal impression of my latest trip on the Bernina Express. For a more factual guide, I have just released this article on Newly Swissed.
Unless you are new here, you will know that I have a couple of passions I will not shut up about: mostly mountains and railways. I always struggle to compute why this came about. I do have clues though: the first holidays I remember as a young child were a summer trip to Chamonix, where my parents took me up to the Montenvers via its mighty rack railway. After that week, my bedroom had a new poster I would fall asleep to every night: a dreamy picture of the Montenvers train making its way up to the glacier. This may be why both mountains and trains remained a personal passion, and why I attempt to keep both themes in my professional and academic life nowadays.
So, if you want to make me happy, just invite me onto a mountain train.
This is what happened a few weeks ago, when I got the opportunity to travel on the Bernina Express (how come? that is a story for another day).
My journey started in Mainz, where I am still working as a postdoctoral researcher until the end of this month. Mainz is at the heart of a very developed regional and InterCity rail network (and if high speed ICEs are what you are looking for, there is always Frankfurt nearby). So I made my way down to Mannheim, another huge Deutsche Bahn hub, from where I was able to catch a direct train making its way all the way to Chur. Chur isn't a major town in the Germanic world, so I felt lucky to be able to enjoy this direct, comfortable ICE service.
After four hours travelling up the Rhine valley, I made it to Chur for dinner. As the oldest town in Switzerland, Chur seemed to be all I loved about Switzerland: a safe, quiet, historical place where tourism seems to have developed without ripping the place apart. The spirit of the Canton of Grisons/Graubünden was well established here, and public buildings displayed all three official languages of the canton (German, Italian, Romansh).
After a comfortable night's sleep, I was ready to hop onboard. From Chur, the only through-and-through Bernina Express is the 08.32 train to Tirano.
It was great to be here. The impressive panoramic windows allowed us to fully enjoy the landscape. It felt like unboxing a new phone and being in awe of the infinity, bezel-free screen. The train departed (on time of course, because Switzerland) and took us up the Hinter Rhein. The mountains would not leave us from that point onward.
The Bernina Express train, which started running Chur-Tirano services in the 1969, runs along the Albula then Bernina railways, two impressive railways which opened southeastern Switzerland to the rest of the country in the early 20th century. The works of engineering here are amazing - from high bridges to spiral tunnel. These will definitely impress any engineering fans.
I will not go into detail here, because images are certainly more necessary than words.
What I must say is how impressive and seamless this journey was. On one side, you have the feats of engineering; on the other, this train has no cogwheel and will keep on facing the mountain no matter what.
The altitude change is striking, starting in Chur at 590m, reaching the Bernina 2,328m, before going back down to reach its Italian terminus, Tirano, at only 441m above sea level. In other words, I left a freezing valley town at 8am, saw some skiers getting sun burnt despite -20C temperatures at 10am, and was ready for an alfresco lunch at noon. The Bernina Express, just like Switzerland itself, is an incredible mix of natural wonders, cultural singularities and linguistic variety.
There were tonnes of reasons to visit that region at the end of January. The WEF was taking place in Davos, the Skeleton & Bobsleigh race was up in St Moritz, and the skiing season was in full swing. I would have loved to visit all of these, but I opted for the train instead. As usual, the journey is the destination for me. And as the SBB slogan went a few years ago, I did feel unterwegs zu Hause (at home while on the move).
If you have an Instagram account, follow me @JordanGirardin and you can see an archived version of the Stories I posted whilst travelling on the Bernina Express. I can't leave you without a few pictures here, though!
This article is a personal impression of my latest trip on the Bernina Express. For a more factual guide, I have just released this article on Newly Swissed.
Happy New Year! I hope you have a great one. If, like me, you either need or want trains as your main mode of transport, there is a lot to look forward to in 2019. Before we get started, a quick reminder that my podcast Dear Railway is still online. I started Season 2 a few months ago and plan to post new episodes in the coming weeks.
In December 2018, the traditional railway timetable change throughout Europe brought many exciting new travel opportunities. In my home region, the Belfort-Delle railway reopened after 26 years of closure, adding a new link between France and Switzerland. This line allows travellers from northwestern Switzerland to easily access Europe's high speed rail network at Belfort-Montbéliard TGV station.
So what should we expect for 2019?
As you can see, there is a lot to look forward to in Europe in 2019. I have, of course, left some out. Some of these do not seem exciting, but in fact they all contribute to continue building Europe's mighty transport network. We will also keep following the building of the Ceneri base tunnel in Switzerland (to be opened next year), the enlargement of the Paris metro ahead of the 2024 Olympics, the controversial Lyon-Turin tunnel, HS2 in the UK, the Karlsruhe-Basel project, and many more. As for me, I hope to continue sharing my thoughts and train passions here and elsewhere. Have an amazing new year, keep travelling, and bon voyage.
MOBILITY DREAMS IN ZERMATT
In June 2018 I embarked on an exciting journey across Switzerland. Back from a conference in my good old university town of Lyon, I reached Zürich via Geneva and Neuchâtel, two cities I deeply love. The next morning, I was at Zürich Airport, being simultaneously deeply in and far out of my comfort zone: shooting a video, whilst travelling by train. I hopped on the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, and after hundreds of kilometres of breathtaking scenery, we had landed in Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn. No, the video isn't an ad per se, rather a beautiful illustration to the article I published in Zermatt Matterhorn's blog. Enjoy, all credit goes to Rex Moribe's impeccable filmmaking skills.
This article isn't here to repeat what I explained on Zermatt's blog. Rather, I would like to pick up from what I believe is the most important section of that article.
"Zermatt challenges our visions of transport, mobility, and comfort."
Why did I think this mattered so much? I'm a 27-year-old train-loving young man with no driving licence. Trains are not a hobby. I believe in a fuss-free, reliable, relaxing, green way of moving around. From Lyon to Zürich, and from Zürich to Zermatt, from 162m to 3,883m above sea level, I only used electric energy, and never waited for more than 10 minutes to get my next connection. Switzerland embodies this bold, ambitious project for public transport, offering more freedom than cars. Once in Zermatt, public transport is no longer a choice: it is the only way. When coming to Zermatt by car, you will have to park in Täsch and get the rail shuttle provided. The unavoidable in-town traffic (for deliveries, taxi runs, helping people with reduced mobility) is all provided by small electric vans, and the drop in noise and air pollution can only be noticed.
The video we produced was meant to convince visitors to visit Switzerland by train, bus and boat, to ditch their car and enjoy the view. The journey is the destination. I couldn't agree more, but being in Zermatt pushed me to think beyond this concept. Zermatt was the destination, and whilst I was there public transport had become normal, the only sensible way. There was no stress due to timetables, and our Swiss Travel Pass allowed us to forget about tickets or prices. It was all smooth, seamless. As much as I love trains, they had gone back into the background, there was no need to think about them, because we could just trust them. And this is what transport should look like. Switzerland's level of determination regarding public transport and green mobility never ceases to amaze me. And their recent vote to put cycling into their constitution has once again confirmed my opinion. This is something I want France and Britain to deeply work on. Spatial mobility is social mobility. It brings economic, social, cultural, linguistic, aesthetic opportunities to all.
After my time in Zermatt, I travelled all the way back up to Mainz, where I work. I hope you won't dare ask me how I got there.
Find out more on Swiss Travel System. If planning a visit to wonderful Zermatt, visit Zermatt Matterhorn.
This is a point I made in a previous article. While I believe French high speed rail has inspired so many other countries, it has also taken directions that threatened France's older network of 19th century railways. TGV trains are more expensive, often stop at dedicated stations in the middle of the countryside, and rarely offer convenient connections to regional trains in order to continue your journey. Investments focus on high speed lines, while regional lines die out. Booking platforms also make sure that TGV trains appear as the first option, while sometimes they do not offer more interesting service.
As HS2 will complement an already very dense network in the South of England and the West Midlands, it must connect itself to regional services, and reach large towns and small cities. By copying the French system, HS2 trains would end up calling at Birmingham Interchange, before only reaching Manchester or Liverpool. As the second phase of HS2 is probably decades away, there is a need to take advantage from the high speed opportunity between London and Birmingham, but also to ensure that trains reach more remote locations - either by stopping at places like Crewe, Macclesfield, Warrington in-between, or by even terminating at other locations - in North Wales, the East Midlands, or South Yorkshire for instance. The original railway between London and Birmingham should also remain fully operational to integrate places like Coventry, Milton Keynes, Rugby to this growing network.
This additional funding is exceptional news for the entire North, in order to push towards the completion of electrification progresses, increase capacities in central stations (to ensure that those remain the main railway stations, instead of building new ones outside of towns), and to make way for more regional services for commuter and North-to-North passengers. While funding matters immensely, the next challenge will be for service providers not to turn HS2 into a toll road. Instead, make HS2 a fully integrated highway, a thoroughfare that will open opportunities for North-South and South-North movements whilst not penalising the other infrastructures that once were railway pioneers. Government, as well as regions and cities of the North, must ensure that.
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!
Why schoolkids should have PE lessons every day (by someone who absolutely hated it)
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?