Travel: European Railroads Kept Continent Moving

Despite the worst global air-traffic disruption since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Europe is running remarkably smoothly. Since Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano started spewing ash into the sky on April 14, airports have been shut down in 30 European countries. A total of 95,000 flights have been canceled across the continent, affecting some 7 million passengers. April 20 was the first day that some semblance of normalcy returned. European Air Control in Brussels says about 50 percent of flights are operating again, including most transatlantic and intercontinental flights.

But in these situations, it is arguably easier for Europe to operate business as usual. The reason is the continent's dense network of high-speed trains, expanded massively over the past two decades and increasingly a viable alternative to air travel. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, the Europeans approximately doubled their high-speed network, to almost 3,500 miles of track laid out for trains going as fast as 250 miles an hour. That infrastructure was put to the test recently as hundreds of extra trains were added onto the major European corridors. On the London–Paris route, Eurostar deployed 10 extra trains a day, shuttling some 80,000 more passengers than usual underneath the Channel.

The German railway was also running all available trains and operating at 30 percent above its usual capacity over the weekend, when all flights over Germany were shut down. The country's biggest airline, Lufthansa, passed out vouchers for the superfast ICE train to passengers stranded in Berlin, Munich, or Frankfurt, where the airport has its own high-speed train station. Extra trains were in service between Italy and France, Denmark and Germany, and Russia and Finland. British vacationers trying to get home from South America flew to Madrid and from there hopped on one of the extra trains running between Madrid and Paris.

And the trains are fast. Even before the volcanic eruption, Europe's list of transport corridors where trains have replaced aircraft as the most convenient way to travel has been growing. The most obvious case is Paris–London, where the 2-hour, 185-mile-an-hour Eurostar service has taken some 70 percent of the market. Air travel on the same route, including check-in, security, and airport transfer, easily takes twice as long. Between Paris and Brussels, air travel has been all but replaced by the 82-minute Thalys line. In Spain, travel is now an hour faster by train than plane between Barcelona and Madrid.

Lufthansa has shut down several domestic German flight corridors, including Berlin–Hamburg and Frankfurt–Cologne, that are now much faster and more convenient by train. There is even an agreement between Lufthansa and the German railroad on these routes, much as between airlines in the U.S. With new extensions to the high-speed network planned in Britain, Germany, and Poland, count on more market share to switch to trains.

Most of the trains this weekend were crowded and chaotic. But they got people where they needed to go, and fast. And when, really, was the last time air travel was smooth and easy?