High Speed Trains: Rated

Friday, April 22, 2022 | Written by Claire

Trains. They’re what make Europe run the way it does today. From local to region to cross-country high speed trains, there are so many different designs and engineering feats you will encounter everywhere you travel. As a newcomer to European transportation before this semester, I found the intricate time tables of arriving and departing trains, engineering mechanisms of high speed rail, and designs to be highly fascinating. From the hundreds of trains I’ve ridden in this past semester, here are my top 5 favorites. If you get the chance, definitely use your Eurail pass to your advantage and take a luxury train ride across the country of your desire. 

5: TGV (France)

This train is going to be your best friend. The good ol’ TGV, also known as Train à grande vitesse, or high-speed train in French. This is the French intercity rail line that will be the heart of how you travel in, out, and within France. There are many other trains that follow the design of the TGV, but this is the original, fastest rail-based high speed train developed in the world, traveling up to 300 km per hour. While TGVs are not the most luxurious on the inside compared to many other trains, it is definitely a classic exterior that represents France as a whole.
4: Italo Treno (Italia) 

To me, this train is like a Ninja. Flanked by red and black stripes, the design of this train embodies speed, agility, and precision. With a nose slightly sharper than many of the ICE and TGV trains, it creates a narrow, streamline figure that cuts through air as it races down the tracks. It is also eco-friendly and sustainable, a good move towards Italy’s renewable energy plan. The interior also has several sections, one that is more “first class” that comes with unlimited snacks and private suites. The seats themselves are firmly cushioned for comfort. Bathrooms are kept squeaky clean and table space is generous. 

3: ICE (Germany) 

I’ve spent most of my travel days on ICE trains simply for its convenience, reliability, and comfort. While it can be packed as the summer months approach, the ICE train is the German high speed rail line that is designed to get you across the country in a matter of hours. If timed right, you can take them as overnight trains and save a few bucks on hotel costs. For the winter, these trains are definitely safe havens for warmth and shelter among the blistering cold winds outside. The seating cushion is also one of the most comfortable. With pillowed head rests and curved back spaces, you can comfortably sleep without leaning your head on a stranger’s shoulder. Additionally, ICE trains have adequate luggage racks at the end and above seats to actually fit your backpack and not just a jacket like some of the French TGVs. 

2: Südostbahn Traverso (Switzerland) 

Deemed as what my friend calls the “sexy train,” the Südostbahn, often abbreviated as SOB, is the new design for the regional Swiss railcar. Plated with a rose gold chrome roof and side matting, the Traverso features spacious seating, large window space, and noise canceling interior. Many of the regional lines also go through scenic routes, making the train ride even more enjoyable. Not only is it kept clean and hygienic, the train also has a bistro car for certain food options and even a vending machine in several cars where you can grab instant coffee or soda. Additionally, while most train bathroom cars are filthy and often smelly, the Traverso has a huge and luxurious bathroom with high pressure faucets and good mirror lighting as well. This was by far one of my favorite train rides I’ve been on and one the most sleek exterior designs within European trains. 

1: Thalys (French-Belgium)

For me, the Thalys will always have a special place in my heart. Branded as an entirely red train, the sleek design makes Thalys standout among the mass of trains passing through each station. They are characterized by their bright red exterior, flanked with silver. Thalys are one of the most expensive trains to ride and they only run through specific cities as well. This French-Belgian line runs high speed trains from Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Cologne. Interior-wise, spacious seating with adequate working room and quadded table space make it easily one of the most comfortable trains to ride. 

And Here We Are…

When I first received the notification that I was accepted into the GTL program to not only study in France but also have the opportunity to learn the language, I can distinctly remember the wave of emotions that overwhelmed me as I sat stunned at my kitchen table. The feeling was a combination of excitement, uncertainty, and shock, but there was also a feeling that I had not expected: fear.

Going to France for me was indeed a last-minute decision. While my plans to study abroad in Korea fell through at the last minute due to COVID regulations, it put an end to any ambitions I could have there. France offered the best alternative to spending my time abroad this Spring semester. While grateful for the opportunity, I felt my stomach clench at the thought of spending almost five months in a foreign country where I do not know the language. Not only that, with no prior experience or interest in French culture, I found it difficult to imagine what life would be like in this unfamiliar country.

Departure: 01/05/2022

Some may wonder, what is it like traveling internationally during a pandemic? The simple answer is: it’s complicated. With Europe bouldering through the massive spike of Omicron cases, traveling to France required months of pre-planning. The time leading up to my departure was spent double checking all my required documents, including but not limited to: Passport, Vaccination Cards including the booster, Negative PCR Covid Test, GTL Enrollment Certificates, Sworn Entry Statements, and most importantly the Passe Sanitaire—the golden ticket into any public space across Europe. 

After securing what I needed to enter the country, the trek to Paris was not only mentally draining, but also physically exhausting. Lugging one duffle, one backpack, and almost two full sized suitcases, I had to meander through the maze of kiosks, security checks, and terminals to finally reach the gate. As I heaved a sigh of relief after dropping my things to the ground and taking a short break at the gate before takeoff, it finally dawned on me that I was heading to Paris, a place romanticized in movies and prided for their posh culture and lifestyle. Even so, I still felt a tinge of regret and hesitation at my decision to study in France.

However, as I boarded the plane and settled into my seat, which happened to be the very last row on the plane, with generous legroom and privacy, I couldn’t help but think, “Claire, don’t regret it. You’re going to have the best time of your life.” Then, as if the gods had sent a sign of affirmation, the sun began to rise over France. 

Arrival to Metz: 01/07/2022

After almost a grueling 24 hours of traveling, I finally stepped foot into Metz, my new home. While I was expecting a beautiful sunset over cobblestone alleys and accordion music outside cafes, I was greeted with gloomy skies, blistering cold weather, and silent streets. Not to mention, the rain that seemed to continue for hours became the bane of my existence for the next few days. Although the winter weather in Metz was a shift from the usual sunny winters in Georgia, the cultural immersion that I experienced within the first few days was enough to offset my freezing fingers and toes. Metz was much quieter than I expected, and the bakeries, restaurants, and even grocery stores seemed traditionally French with almost no English speakers. Even as I looked around at the cars passing on the street, the French students in my dorm, and the fashion styles that people wore, I started to notice interesting subtle cultural norms among French society–foreign to the States.

Being downtown during the first Saturday of the semester opened my eyes to an entire world of French traditions. It was as if my Youtube Screen had come to life. The architecture featured huge stone structures, quaint city stores, and bustling alleyways that became home to people drinking coffee, chatting, and listening to ‘Bella Ciao’ as the sun began to dip below the horizon. Castles and stores along the river became a beautiful blend of modern and ancient France, a reminder of the rich history within Metz. The food offered an even greater variety. The streets were lined with dozens of pastry stores featuring chocolate dipped croissants, king cake, and even powdered buns while the heart of downtown Metz boasted a mix of Italian, Turkish, and even Chinese food. Finally, the people who frequented the town upheld strong French values, sticking to their language and cultural norms. The sleek, chic style of long coats, scarves, and leather shoes were common defenses against the cold. For those working in restaurants, they always greeted us with a “Bonjour” and a smile on their faces.

A beautiful church along the river in downtown Metz

While the first week in Metz was one to remember, there are still endless places to visit, things to see, and great experiences to check off my bucket list. My journey to understanding French culture is long. Nonetheless, I can’t wait to see what else Europe has in store.