Whatever: European Vacation

John Burns
by John Burns

Planes, Trains and Motorcycles

There, I was rocketing across the German countryside on the way from Cologne to Heidelberg with number-one son at my side. With no traffic ahead, my mechanical steed lowered its head and plunged ahead, bit firmly in teeth, rolling along the silky smooth bahn… 240 kph said the digital speedo, 260, 288, 303… yo that’s 188 mph! The telephone poles looked like a picket fence as the countryside flew past. We’d just spent a couple days at the big Intermot motorcycle show, and now were rewarding ourselves with a couple days of European vacation. How could it get any better than this, I asked myself as we sped crazily along? Pinch me.

Just then, the attendant came down the aisle with the cocktail cart. Ahhh.

We were on the German ICE train, Inter-City Express. I can’t remember the last time I went 180 – maybe at our Superbike track day a couple years ago at Auto Club Speedway. It wasn’t quite as exhilarating on the train, but really, I’d say it was just as much fun for me in a completely different way, maybe because the train is about my second favorite vehicle after the motorcycle.

Sorry for the blurry screen grab, but the speedo says 303 km/hr.

The first-generation ICEs started running around Deutschland in the late 1990s; now they’re all over the place. They cost a bit more than the regular train, but we didn’t know we were buying ICE tickets at the time. I mean we did, but we didn’t know ICE meant bullet train! What the heck, we’re on vacation. On our midday run to Heidelberg via Mannheim, we had a whole luxurious car nearly to ourselves, and one car ahead was the white-linen restaurant car. The best part is you don’t even need to be strip-searched and X-rayed to board. You just stroll down to the bahnhof, conveniently located in the middle of every city, buy a ticket and hop on.

Anyway, I was glad I got the chance to ride an ICE. They’re trying to build a high-speed rail system here in California, but it keeps getting mired down in politics and red tape. The liberals, as usual, are all in favor, the conservatives, as always, say it’s an overpriced boondoggle. Business as usual. I believe we had the same argument over the transcontinental railroad in the 1850s.

Your Cologne Hauptbahnhof is conveniently located smack dab in the middle of town, cathedral adjacent.

I used to travel to San Francisco from LA quite a bit by motorcycle, since it was such a nice ride, and so I’d have personal mobility when I got there. Flying was never an option. Yick. I might’ve taken the train, but… critics always point to the fact that nobody uses public transportation, ignoring that’s largely because it’s just not very good. If I want to take the train to San Francisco tomorrow, it’s 14 hours and 16 minutes, and part of that’s by bus. No thanks. The high-speed train, semi-under construction now, is supposed to cut that to three hours. That’s like the same as flying, with none of the stress but all the scenery of riding your motorcycle. Yes it’s expensive to build, but if backward societies like Germany, France, Spain and Japan can make it work, why can’t we? (Rhetorical question.)

If you haven’t ridden California 101 lately, the main route between LA and SFO, it’s pretty damn trafficky much of the way now. Packing people onto a nice train would relieve a lot of that, if you believe these charts I found here. A train also fits into the modern zeitgeist of millennials not being so car-crazy anyway, and would be a good thing for the planet and for those of us on motorcycles.

So high-speed rail cut into air travel more than automobile travel in France and Spain, but both are countries with much lower private car ownership than the US. Anyway, even 8% fewer cars on the road would be great for motorcyclists.

I’m all for cutting air travel, too, which has become so inhumane it takes most of the fun out of travel, especially on international flights where the seats keep getting smaller and the travellers larger. Now that we’ve got Wifi and cloud computing that allow many of us to work anywhere, I’d be down for a few days on a nice boat ride to Europe or Asia. You? A great big electric tramp steamer. Oh, that’s the other thing about ICE. It’s electric.

Like I mentioned, we were there in Germany in the first place for the big Intermot show, the star of which I think I can safely say was the all-new Indian FTR1200. It wasn’t really a big surprise thanks to all the teasing Indian’s been doing for a while now, and thanks to the fact it’s nearly impossible to keep a thing a secret in the era of social media. Still, the bike caused quite an international stir, which I contemplated whilst rocketing along on the ICE zug quaffing a chilled Bitburger.

Why can’t we have nice things in America? Boeing does nice work. Chevrolet and Ford both turn out some very nice cars, but most of us coastal elites want a BMW or a Mercedes for trundling along at 60 in the left lane. Or a 20-year old Jaguar. Harleys are nice in their own unique way, but their appeal is really limited to people who like Harleys. How is it that the land of Supercross has to have all its SX machinery imported from Japan? (And more recently Austria?) The USA used to lead the league in all this stuff. What happened?

Their churches are nicer too. We happened upon a funeral for a biker in Cologne Cathedral.

I don’t think labor costs have much to do with it anymore: Now that the economy is global, all that’s required is the best engineering minds to export their designs. The world has shrunk. Polaris has had a big factory in Poland since 2014. On our night exploring Heidelberg, the son and I walked into a bar late in the evening. Somebody grabbed Ryan by the shoulder. It was one of his good friends from college in San Diego, who’s now a Navy SEAL. What are the chances? All the gin joints in all the world…

Not chained to its own history, young and fearless, unafraid to try something out of its comfort zone, Indian seems to have come up with a fresh, original motorcycle that seems like it might be the company’s first international hit. A bike that’s distinctly American and unashamedly modern.

When in Rome…

The next morning I bid farewell to the kid at our Airbnb (who was flying to London to visit a friend there), walked two blocks to the train station, and figured out how to get onto the train to the Dusseldorf airport all by myself. Watching the contrails of a dozen jets scrolling across a pink orange sky at dawn, I’d had Ode to Joy on an endless loop for a couple days now. I was only briefly worried when we were scheduled to arrive at the flyingplace at 8:01 and didn’t hit the brakes ’til 8:03!

So seamless. So user-friendly. So efficient…

It was all sweetness and love until I saw the biggest man on my flight from Dublin to LAX walking down the aisle, homing in on the empty middle seat next to my aisle one as we prepared to depart. He was a very nice, gentle large Irishman, thankfully, because by the time we got to LAX ten hours later, the left side of his body was on intimate terms with the right side of mine. Emerging from LAX’s shabby Terminal 2, I looked around for the train to Orange County and remembered there isn’t one. One a’ these days, Alice, we’ll catch up to the Euros when it comes to getting around! It’s probably crazy to hope this new Indian is step one?

Funeral for a friend.
John Burns
John Burns

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  • George georgakopoulos George georgakopoulos on Oct 20, 2018

    In Europe gasoline is ~1.50€/litre

  • Cam Cam on Oct 23, 2018

    Good write-up. Trains are definitely a very nice way to travel. We have a few Amtrak routes that are semi-speedy here in the NW, and that's good. There are even people on them! Going Portland to Seattle on the train isn't too bad - although it takes about the same amount of time as driving...unless there's a rush hour involved. Eugene to Portland is rather slow.

    Most routes here share rails with freight RRs, and the freight folks own the rails....which, of course, restricts service. That, and it's Amtrak... Would love to see an "ACELA-equivalent" service more widespread in the Pacific NW, but I think there are other issues that might have people's attention now, especially the high cost of housing. Although, there appears to be space in the rail corridor to have a dedicated passenger rail in most places, and that's what would really make it work -- along with more regular service between metro areas.

    Especially since 300,000 people have moved to Oregon in the last 6-7 years, and traffic in the Portland metro area is getting unbearable [I commute by motorcycle]. I read recently that >15% of people here commute more than 40 miles per day, with a large contingent driving to and from Salem (60 mi each way) on I-5 at least 4 days per week. A high speed train with appropriately timed runs between cities would sure help that situation.