Europe is a mishmash of disparate rail systems that predate the European Union, back when governments banked on the incongruity "to protect themselves from invading armies and competition from foreign industries," says Oliver Sellnick, director at the International Union of Railways in Paris. While the European Union has managed to unify most of the continent on everything from a common currency to farm policy, combining railroads hasn't been easy.
Traveling by train from one country to another has long required coordination with multiple national railways. Drivers and locomotives, for instance, are changed at the borders for technical and legal reasons. For travelers, the challenges haven't been as readily apparent as passenger trains have long been given top priority when crossing borders (and high-speed trains, like France's TGV and Spain's AVE, promise to eliminate the few hassles). But the logistics of transporting goods by rail has long been a nightmare.
"If one train was going from, say, Lyon to Warsaw, it could spend 24 or even 48 hours on the borders," says Timothy Jackson, international director of Angel Trains, a British company that leases trains to freight companies. To avoid the hassle, most freight operators use trucks instead.
But now the baby-steps of liberalization are coming to Europe's rails. So when a Swiss company followed Railion's lead in 1998 and asked for a locomotive that could run from Switzerland to Germany, Bombardier saw the future.
Engineers at Bombardier's facilities all over Europe set out to invent a new train that could traverse Europe's patchwork of voltage levels, signal systems and other local quirks - while keeping this feature-rich locomotive affordable.
One Universal train is the beginning, when will we see ONE ONLY UNIVERSAL PLUG?