Could this be the age of the train, not the plane?

New high-speed rail links across the Continent will soon give the airlines a run for their money. Mark Rowe reports on the services we can look forward to
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The Independent Travel

This year really does appear to be the age of the train, or, at least, the age of the continental train. The opening of the high-speed link between Rome and Milan last month has cut an hour off the journey, with the trip now taking three hours, 30 minutes on Trenitalia's Red Arrow train (pictured right), which plies the route at up to 186 miles per hour.

But the line does more than connect Italy's first and second cities; it is just the first of a series of dramatic high-speed links and new train lines that will open, or on which work will begin this year.

By the end of this year, a new high-speed link will connect Brussels and Amsterdam, cutting the journey time from London to the Dutch city from five hours and five minutes to three hours, 36 minutes; a high-speed line from Brussels to the German border will open around the same time, reducing times to Cologne and other German cities by up to 30 minutes.

These follow recent openings such as the Barcelona-Madrid high-speed link in 2007, which has reduced airline share on the route between the two cities (once the busiest air route in Europe) from 88 per cent to 40 per cent. Meanwhile, France has announced plans for high-speed links joining the Rhine and the Rhone, as well as between Tours and Bordeaux and Paris and Rennes. Next year a TGV line will link France and Spain, between Perpignan and Figueres.

Air France-KLM is considering replacing some of its short-haul European flights with a high-speed rail service on a new generation of Alstom trains known as the AGV. These can carry up to 900 passengers at 224mph and could link Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport and Amsterdam in about one and half hours. And Denmark is working on a high-speed train network that travels at 130mph between Copenhagen and Aalborg.

This activity is driven by a European Commission mission to increase dramatically rail's share of passengers against flights within the European Union. In 2007, the European Commission helped to launch Railteam, a consortium of high-speed operators, including Eurostar UK, Belgium's Thalys, France's SNCF, the Swiss network SBB, and Deutsche Bahn, the German operator. The aim is that, by 2010, 25 million international travellers will use the European high-speed rail network and that the network will triple between 2007 and 2020. Railteam also works on improving access and infrastructure for passengers and is implanting an integrated rail timetable across Europe that will ensure that you will wait no longer than 30 minutes for a connecting train at one of the major transport hubs.

This spring, Railteam launches a 30-million ticket distribution system, which should make it easier for international travellers to secure the lowest price for a through ticket from any distributor of European rail in a single transaction. Rail Europe can now sell tickets to 5,000 destinations across Europe. "The aim of Railteam is to improve waiting times, signage and make it easier for people to buy through tickets and cheaper tickets," said a spokesperson for Eurostar.

Rail companies hope that this greater integration of pan-European services will entice travellers off aircraft. Railteam studies suggest that business travellers are willing to travel up to four hours on rail, while leisure travellers are prepared to enjoy longer

journeys of up to eight hours, comfortably enough to reach the south of France, Geneva, and, just, Spain.

More developments will come next year, when the EU opens its international passenger rail market to competition, so that private and state companies will be able to apply to run services in third countries. Deutsche Bahn has made it clear it wishes to run services from St Pancras to German destinations. Richard Branson's Virgin Trains has also expressed interest in any franchises that might arise from deregulation. "The increase in rail travel across Europe is a good thing, and we can all see it is only going to increase," said a spokesman. "It's now been comprehensively proven that rail travel can match air travel over distances such as London to Paris and longer. Even if you're not concerned about the green arguments, the advantages of rail over air are very clear."

The developments are welcomed by Mark Smith, author of the website seat61.com. "High-speed links are great for travel from the UK. And cheaper tickets are really improving access." However, Mr Smith added that high-speed rail was not the only way to gauge the success of Europe's railways. "Sleeper trains can be more convenient than high-speed trains for certain destinations," he explained. "Germany has really invested in its sleep train service. They can be more effective than high-speed trains in getting to Spain and Italian destinations south of Milan."

"Rail is becoming more of an option as people realise there is an alternative to flying," said Amanda Monroe, a spokeswoman for Rail Europe. "More tour operators are offering rail packages and that has to be because customers are asking for them. There's a combination of factors: people are fed up with the hassle and stresses of flying; they're thinking about green issues, and they're also realising it's often quicker. These are good times for Europe's railways."

Six new high-speed routes

Amsterdam-Brussels: present journey time, five hours five minutes; projected new time, three hours 36 minutes.

Rome-Milan: old time, four hours 30 minutes; new time, three hours 30 minutes.

London-Cologne: present time, four hours 45 minutes; projected new time, four hours.

London-Berlin: present time, 10 hours; projected new time, eight hours 30 minutes.

London-Milan: old time, 16 hours; new time, 12 hours.

London-Geneva: old time, 11 hours; new time, seven hours.

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