Paris to Berlin in an hour: Welcome to the future of high-speed rail in Europe
From endless queues to canceled flights and lost luggage – if you’ve experienced any of the chaos at European airports This summer, it might help to imagine a future in which international travel is more fluid and doesn’t revolve so much around flying.
Picture this: the year is 2045. You’re standing on a platform in Berlin waiting for a sleek Hyperloop pod that will glide through the station to a silent halt, then drop you off in Paris an hour later, ready for your meeting of the morning.
In the afternoon, you’ll take another pod south for a leisurely trip to Barcelona for the weekend, a trip that won’t take more than 90 minutes.
The speed and ease won’t surprise you anymore, because over the last quarter century almost all travel across Europe has gone from sky to ground.
Short-haul flights are nothing more than a relic of a carbon-fueled past.
It may sound like science fiction, but there are real reasons to believe that a future of mobility like this could be possible.
The climate crisis is focusing the minds of European policy makers on their stated goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Many are betting on rail to get us there.
Why is the train not the essential choice for traveling in Europe?
“If we want to achieve decarbonization and climate change goals, rail is the instrument to achieve it”, Carlo Borghini, the head of Shift2Railthe European body responsible for boosting research and innovation in the railway sector, told Euronews Next.
Trains already boast impressive green credentials considering their high degree of electrification compared to other modes of transport. Currently, they are only responsible for 0.5% of carbon emissions within the EU.
However, if Europe wants to cut transport emissions – which account for around a quarter of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions – much more needs to be done to encourage passengers and freight to get off planes and into stations.
Despite the continent’s extensive experience in the sector and advanced rail networks, only about 7% of passengers and 11% of goods travel by rail.
This can be explained by the fact that rail in Europe is little more than a patchwork of different national systems which has hardly been the subject of an overall strategy at European level, according to a report by environmental think tank Germanwatch.
The result is that cross-border train travel can be an expensive, unreliable and inconvenient alternative to flying for many.
For example, there is currently no direct rail service from Berlin to Brussels or Paris, although a TGV Paris-Berlin is set to launch in late 2023, and the trip is expected to take seven hours.
A single European railway area
The good news, however, is that in the wake of COVID-19, priorities are changing and there is a real appetite and political momentum to change this state of affairs.
The European Commission plans to double high-speed rail traffic by 2030 and triple it by 2050, and last December it unveiled an action plan including faster trains, simpler ticketing systems and support for cross-border travel.
Shift2Rail aims to establish a Single European railway area (WILL BE). It is an idea designed to enable seamless cross-border mobility on the continent and simplify the network for rail operators.
“We need to make sure that we have a single European network in Europe, which means that our end goal is to transport goods from one side of the continent to the other,” said Borghini, executive director of Shift2Rail.
“At the same time, we must guarantee the same for the passenger, in order to guarantee that any rail operator, any rail company can operate trains in every part of Europe without the need to modify locomotives, wagons, power and signaling”.
Beyond SERA, Shift2rail is leveraging around €1 billion in funding to help drive innovation towards three specific goals: reducing the life cycle cost of the rail system, doubling existing capacity and reducing network delays.
But in the next step, Borghini tells Euronews, it will be up to member states to decide which technological solutions they want to fund.
“The next step is to bring railway research innovation to market: investing in technological solutions that must both be deployed, migrated…transform the concrete system,” said Borghini.
MagLev and Hyperloop trains
If there’s one thing that could attract passengers to trains, it’s probably the tantalizing possibility of drastically reducing journey times between major zero-emission European cities.
Companies like Nevomo in Poland and Zeleros in Spain are working to make this a reality by developing a high-tech maglev rail system and a scalable Hyperloop system respectively.
“Hyperloop is a new mode of transport that fundamentally reduces friction, which is the main source of inefficiency in transport,” said Juan Vicén Balaguer, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Zeleros Hyperloop.
“The two main frictions are aerodynamics: when the vehicle is moving, there is some air resistance. And the other is ground friction which occurs when a wheel touches the ground”, a- he explained.
“In order to avoid this. We put the vehicle in a tube where we remove most of the air and on the other side we levitate the vehicle so that it does not touch any ground. We reduce the main friction and we can work with 5 to 10 times more energy efficient than an airplane”.
The Hyperloop concept has its roots in the early 19th century, when mechanical engineer George Medhurst first proposed a method of transporting people and goods using pneumatic tubes.
But it was Elon Musk who breathed new life into the idea when he released an open source concept for a Hyperloop mass transit system in 2013.
In fact, Zeleros started out as a university project competing in a Hyperloop Design competition hosted by Musk’s SpaceX in 2015, where they came away with two prizes for best design and best propulsion system.
Buoyed by its success, the team decides to go into business. They now have more than 150 employees and are in the testing phase of the prototype they have developed.
The aim is to reach speeds of 1,000 km with zero emissions.
In the case of Nevomo, while their stated goal is to eventually develop their own Hyperloop prototype, in the short term they are focusing their attention on developing a “magrail” system which they believe could be operational by 2025.
“We are focusing on something else in between, as Hyperloop will still take some time to implement,” Nevomo business development manager Milan Chromík told Euronews Next.
“We expect it in a few decades. But in the meantime, we fully understand that even the current infrastructure needs to be modernized.”
Nevomo’s system is based on magnetic levitation technology which uses magnets to lift a train off the track and another set of magnets to propel it along the track.
Importantly, the company combines this technology with traditional rail by adding the magnetic components and guide rails to the existing infrastructure, a feature it says gives Nevomo a distinct advantage over its competitors.
The company recently signed an agreement with Italian rail infrastructure manager Rete Ferroviaria Italiana to verify the technical and economic feasibility of superimposing magrail technology on existing tracks.
Together, they will apply for European funding to carry out a full-scale test of the technology on the Bologna San Donato test circuit.
According to Chromik, the Nevomo magrail technology, if applied to high-speed lines, would be able to double the maximum speeds of a TGV train to 550 km/h.
Another advantage of the technology is that it is able to send individual “pods” to a final destination instead of long trains, which Chromík says will increase the capacity of existing lines.
“Today, the current systems, they have reached their limits, and on the most populated and densest lines, you are no longer able to increase traffic,” he said.
“The European Union is currently pushing to eliminate short-haul flights in Europe, and they would like to put it on track, but on track there is no need to do so.
“So there needs to be a change in the rail industry to be able to meet those needs.”
For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.
Editor’s note: This article was first published in August 2021 and has since been updated.