Next weekend, new timetables and high-speed lines will fast-forward Europe's rail routes. Simon Calder explores the alphabet of options

At 8.37 on Friday evening, EuroNight train 469, run by Austrian Railways, will pull quietly away from Strasbourg's handsome station. The express will curve around the north of the city and clatter across the Rhine to join Germany's main north-south line at the village of Appenweier, whose station has a bronze plaque proclaiming it to be the hub of Europe's railway network: "From Paris to Istanbul and Moscow, from Rome to Hamburg and Berlin". Soon afterwards, it will branch east, speed through the foothills of the Black Forest and reach the Danube Valley, which it follows (with a few deviations) deep into Austria. An hour before the sun rises over Vienna, the train will sigh to a halt at the Westbahnhof. And Europe's most celebrated train, the Orient Express, will be no more.

The demise of the service that once connected Paris with Asia will be mourned by a few old romantics. But next weekend, when the updated Europe-wide timetables take effect, many more people will be celebrating a new age of the train.

The Orient Express has been axed partly because of erosion of its market by the no-frills airlines, but more pertinently because of the spread of high-speed lines across Europe. Two key links open next weekend, accelerating trains through Belgium and Holland, and between Milan and Rome. Spain bucks its parlous economic state with new alta velocidad lines, while Russia joins the high-speed club with 155mph trains from Moscow to St Petersburg.

On the rare occasions when trains fail to outpace other forms of terrestrial transport (from Glasgow to Fort William, Palma to Soller and St Moritz to Zermatt, for example), it is usually because they carve a spectacular route denied to road travellers.

Building railway lines devours land, materials and energy. But once constructed railways are relatively gentle on the environment. On the passenger, too: jolting, braking and swerving are minimal, because of the railway's inherent limits on gradient and curvature. Aesthetically, broad windows divulge the secrets of Europe's countryside, coasts and cities. And you can devour anything from today's Independent to a full English breakfast without fear of upset. Talking of today's Independent, here begins a lexicon of locomotion to take you to the most exciting locations across the continent by the most civilised form of transport.

The Orient Express is dead; long live expresses to the Orient, and the north, west and south of Europe.

A Amsterdam The handsome Centraal Station that spills you out into the heart of the Dutch capital moves 20 minutes closer to Britain from 13 December. The current fastest journey time from London St Pancras via Brussels of five hours will be cut thanks to the opening of another section of the much-delayed high-speed link from Brussels and Antwerp through Holland.

Few travellers pause to appreciate Centraal Station. Even though seemingly endless engineering work has blighted the magnificent Northern Renaissance façade for years, you can still appreciate the eastern tower with its elegant clock, and the western tower with its device showing the direction of the wind. The station's highlight is to be found on platform 2, where you can track down the elegant old Wachtkamer 1e Klasse, the first-class waiting room, now converted into the Grand Café-Restaurant 1e klas. Lions flank the original entrance, together with a portrait of a wistful Dutch girl, decorated by roses.

The guaranteed low-cost way to reach Amsterdam is the excellent Dutchflyer rail-sea deal from London Liverpool Street (or any National Express East Anglia station) via the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry to any station in the Netherlands for £29 each way. The London-Amsterdam journey time is about 11 hours. For travellers from other parts of Britain, all you need do is get a cheap advance ticket to Peterborough and plug into the deal there.

B Baggage Broadly, if you can carry it, you can take it on board a train, which seems to work just fine in most parts of Europe – even in the former Eastern bloc, through which migrant workers routinely travel with the entire contents of their households and, often, some judiciously purchased goods for resale back home.

Eurostar is more strict: the traveller on its trains from London to Lille, Brussels and Paris faces a limit of two medium sized-cases, with a maximum dimension of 33 inches, plus one small item of hand luggage. Anything more than this has to be sent as Registered Baggage, at a cost of £15 or £20 per piece each way, with a guarantee that it will arrive at your destination within 24 hours. The exception are the Eurostar ski trains that start running from London to the Moûtiers, Aime-la-Plagne and Bourg-St-Maurice in the French Alps a fortnight from today: a pair of skis or a snowboard is permitted in addition to the normal allowance, with part of each carriage devoted to awkward luggage.

C Clapham Junction Europe's busiest station, in terms of trains passing through: 2,000 a day, with up to three a minute at peak times – some of them, notably the Gatwick Express, without stopping. Alluring destinations you can reach direct from London SW11 are Brighton (45 minutes), Windsor (45 minutes), Exeter (three hours), Milton Keynes (80 minutes) and Balham (five minutes).

Strangely, the UK rail network has two other Claphams – one in North Yorkshire, and Clapham High Street in south London – both of which are given precedence on the National Rail website.

D Delays While the European Union stipulates care and compensation for delayed airline passengers, there is no continent-wide legal framework for rail travellers affected by late-running trains.

The Community of European Railways in Brussels has a charter that talks vaguely about "appropriate compensation for train delays exceeding a certain time limit", together with the promise of refreshments in the event of a delay of more than three hours and overnight accommodation where necessary.

The most generous operator, at least on paper, is Renfe of Spain: if one of its AVE high-speed services runs more than five minutes late, you are supposed to get a full refund – though this was not forthcoming on a Madrid-Barcelona express service that ran so late I almost missed a flight; and when I was on an overnight train that broke down between Seville and Barcelona I ended up paying £100 for the hotel.

E e-tickets Spain is well ahead in removing hassle from the booking process: all tickets bought through are print-your-own. The Swedes offer the same courtesy at , as does Eurostar ( ). Besides saving queuing, this has the benefit of allowing you to keep a spare print-out just in case one goes astray.

The Italians make life even easier: you just quote a reference number; Chiltern Trains, part of Deutsche Bahn, has long offered tickets-by-text; Megatrain will send you an SMS with your reservation details for a fee of just 10p, and First ScotRail bargain berths are all sold on an e-ticket-only basis.

F Firenze Santa Maria Novella Could this be the most beautifully located city-centre station? The railway terminus in Florence is named after the nearby church of Santa Maria Novella, one of the city's loveliest places of worship. You can find Masaccio's spellbinding Trinity just off the nave (of the church, not the station), while the Strozzi Chapel has frescoes by Filippino Lippi. There is also a Santa Maria Novella pharmacy at Via della Scala 16, which is four centuries old. Complete with frescoed ceilings and glass cabinets, it offers a range of old herbal remedies as well as soaps, oils and room fragrances.

The station building was one of the key developments in the Italian modernist movement of the 1930s, with its severe edges and large flat roof.

From next weekend, Rome's Termini station will be 1 hour 33 minutes away, with Milan Centrale 1 hour 45 minutes distant. Much of the new high-speed stretch to Bologna runs underground.

G Gauge Four feet, eight and a half inches: at great expense in time and labour, the Spanish are slowly converting their national rail network from "Iberian" gauge to this, the width laid down nearly two centuries ago by George Stephenson and still the global standard. Spain even has some high-speed trains that actually change gauge while on the move.

The best place to witness the folly of non-standardisation is at Latour-de-Carol, a windswept station high in the French Pyrenees, where passengers from Toulouse arrive on a smart, standard gauge train and must change either to a Spanish train (whose wheels are nine inches wider), or the Petit Train Jaune (15 inches narrower). The latter service runs along a line that performs engineering miracles to find its way down from the high Pyrenees to Villefranche near the Mediterranean.

Some narrow-gauge services are remaining resolutely slim. The most impressive journey also begins on the Franco-Spanish border, at Hendaye; you can travel from here to San Sebastian and onwards to Bilbao, Santander and Coruña aboard some brand-new rolling stock, or the luxury Transcantabrico train.

H High-speed trains Even though the Orient Express is to hit the buffers this week, travellers are about to find most European trains better and faster. You might imagine that changing the Continent's timetables could be more smoothly accomplished at some time other than just before Christmas, but you can't fault the improvements. The changes have already taken effect in Ireland: starting this week, Cork-Dublin has shrunk to just two hours 30 minutes. In Russia, new expresses between Moscow and St Petersburg later this month will reduce the journey time between the nation's two biggest cities to three hours, 45 minutes. This is inside the four-hour limit that is generally accepted as the threshold for switching from air to rail for inter-city journeys. Europe's quickest link at present is the Paris-Strasbourg line, running at 200mph.

The first genuine British domestic high-speed service opens a week tomorrow. Trains will run from London St Pancras to Kent at speeds of 140mph. "Experience Folkestone's nightlife", as travellers are being urged, may be questionable as a big draw card, but the chance to reach Canterbury in under an hour will appeal. And unlike most high-speed lines, fares are hardly changing for off-peak journeys: a London-Canterbury day return rises by just 80p to £26.

Europe's high-speed lines are often run as separate entities from the main state railways. The Railteam alliance aims to foster cooperation between them, but many travellers still find putting together complex itineraries is best entrusted to a specialist. These include Rail Europe (part of French Railways) and Trainseurope, which has an office at St Pancras station in London. .

I InterRail When this flimsy document was first unveiled 37 years ago, it opened up Europe for a generation of students. Suddenly the possibilities of the summer vacation multiplied. The original card cost £32, and was valid for a month. A student could travel as far as the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the Iron Curtain on virtually any train. It took no more than five minutes for the average NUS card holder to work out that, in exchange for just over £1 a day, they bought the right to unlimited overnight accommodation, courtesy of the compartment trains that rattled across Europe at all hours.

Gradually, the price and eligibility has increased (currently £359 for travellers under 25; older passengers can participate for £545, and there is even a £735 first-class option). But the value of the pass has dwindled. Initially, very few trains required a supplement or advance booking. Today, supplements are payable for faster trains in most countries, costing up to €33.30 in Greece; and while reservation fees are generally low, the need to make an advance booking reduces the flexibility that once prevailed. And the cheap and effective way to cover long distances in Europe is now to book no-frills flights well in advance.

However, a couple of positive InterRail developments are expected for 2010: a "senior" version and a shorter, 15-day option. In addition, there is a wide range of shorter-duration and smaller-area passes available at lower cost.

J Juan-les-Pins Perhaps the most enticing stop on the classic journey along the Côte d'Azur, from Menton – on the border with Italy – to the fragrant provençal hill town of Grasse. The train makes 26 stops between the two, including subterranean Monaco, handsome Nice Ville and high-end Antibes. At Juan-les-Pins, the line runs through a faded tableau of terracotta then converges with the coast. The whole journey is a bargain at €11.70 (or use your InterRail pass).

K Kiev The busiest station in Europe? London Waterloo, but only if you count the Underground passengers as well; by this definition, Paris Gare du Nord is in second place. But the most plausible candidate for the title "Clapham Junction of Europe" is Kiev. Remarkably for a city of three million, all the rail traffic is focused on a single main station – itself a spectacular Stalinist structure. Change here for the Crimea, St Petersburg or Berlin, all served by direct trains. You can't do that at Clapham Junction. And if you enjoy railway superlatives, head for Arsenalna metro station: at 335 feet, the deepest in the world.

L Länder-Tickets Deutsche Bahn is one of the most successful train operators in Europe, and has some excellent deals. Five adults and any number of children and grandchildren can travel from 9am to 3am (weekends, from midnight to 3am the following day) on all but express trains in Bavaria for a total of €28. Other parts of Germany have their own Länder-Tickets, at similar fares. The ticket also covers local transport such as buses and trams. The best "L" to head for on your Länder-Ticket is Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, one of the few European stations with enough room for an ice rink.

M Maglev The two main constraints on speed are air resistance and friction between the wheels and the rails. The latter hindrance can be eliminated if the train is suspended above the track by electro-magnetism. That is the system used by the world's fastest train, which connects Pudong airport in Shanghai with the city at a top speed of 268mph.

In Europe, Maglev has a less happy experience: the one functioning version, connecting Birmingham International station with the airport, opened 25 years ago, but proved unreliable and closed in 1995. The proposed Maglev link between Berlin and Hamburg is still on the drawing board.

N Norway The most civilised railway in Europe? Norway makes a strong claim. The main line from Oslo to Bergen reveals spectacular scenery, providing access to lakes and ski resorts, and terminating triumphantly at Bergen's magnificent station. Onboard facilities include a children's play area that takes up half a carriage. The only exception is the Airport Express from Oslo airport into the city, which is extremely expensive – but cheaper trains are available run by the Norwegian State Railway, NSB. ;

O Oberalp Pass This is the highest section of the Glacier Express route between St Moritz and Zermatt, reaching heights of 6,670 feet. The line carries regular trains as well as the tourist special. It owes its existence to an influx of wealthy tourists in the early 20th century, lured by the spectacular landscapes of the Swiss Alps. The route follows numerous gorges and the early stage of the Rhine, as well as crossing viaducts such as the Landwasser Viaduct, which passes 213 feet over the Landwasser River before disappearing into a tunnel in the adjacent cliff.

P Prague The city's central station, Hlavni, presides over Wenceslas Square and provides a splendid way to arrive in the Czech capital. But many travellers arrive instead at the suburban Holesovice station – which is like being ejected from a train at Clapham Junction when your final destination is Waterloo. Next weekend, though, that changes: new tracks mean the central station will be able to accommodate many more long-distance trains.

The best trip to make from Prague? The service along the old line to Franz-Josef station in Vienna, which runs through deep valleys and across high moorland, providing a strong sense of 19th-century Europe, to the city that was the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Q Quimper This beautiful port in southern Brittany was so thrilled to be connected to the French high-speed network that it has a Hotel TGV, suitably located just off the Avenue de la Gare. A double room costs €38, excluding breakfast; to get there by TGV, a return ticket from London St Pancras via Paris costs £99.

R Romania The nation with the second-cheapest trains in Europe. The four-hour journey from the capital, Bucharest, to Constanta on the Black Sea coast costs just £7; book at

Plenty of travellers are under the impression that the country with the most expensive trains is Britain; the theoretical walk-up first-class fare from Newquay in Cornwall to Kyle of Lochalsh in western Scotland will increase to £1,002 from the New Year. In fact, the vast majority of travellers pay some kind of discounted fare.

The very cheapest rail travel in Europe is to be found in the UK, thanks to low fares offered by companies such as Virgin Trains (London-Manchester for £8) and megatrain (London-Sheffield £3).

S The foremost rail advice site, started by a career railwayman named Mark Smith. Like the best travel internet sites, it is prescriptive rather than trying to be all- embracing. "When I started, people were telling me that they were afraid of flying, or they specifically liked train travel," he says. "Now they're telling me two things in the same breath: they're telling me that they want to cut their carbon footprint and they're telling me that they're fed up with the sheer hassle of flying. The world is almost turning on its head; it's poor people who have no alternative who are herded on to budget airlines and the more affluent people who sit back with a glass of red on a high-speed train, travelling at leisure down to the south of France."

T Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable The perfect complement to Mark Smith's information is this compendium of transportational possibilities, compiled by a team at Thomas Cook headquarters in Peterborough led by Brendan Fox, who collectively re-define "diligence".

Each month, they harness a swamp of schedules arriving from across Europe and channel them into a single volume, which contains all the details the traveller needs to get from Vila Real on Portugal's border with Spain to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean (change at Faro, Lisbon, Hendaye, Paris, Cologne and Moscow; journey time 9 days, 13 hours, 7 minutes).

The European Rail Timetable (£13.99) deserves the term "traveller's Bible": despite the compilers' heroic efforts, aided by correspondents across Europe, some of the schedules are more about hope and belief than reality.

U Underground The best "Underground" railways are those which are overground. The French capital has some excellent examples, such as Line 6 between Montparnasse and Passy, and Line 2 across the north of the city. It is also home to Europe's largest and busiest underground station Châtelet- Les-Halles. In Germany, notable U-Bahns that are more über than unter include U1 around the south of Berlin.

Almost all the Moscow Metro is underground, but it is a celebration of grandiose socialist achievement, and the marble steps and chandeliers make it a notable attraction.

V Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Still with us: the luxury train comprising antique rolling stock that runs from Paris (with a connection from London) to Venice, for a London-Venice fare of £1,595.

W Wolsztyn A small town in western Poland, and base for the last surviving steam-hauled trains running scheduled services on main lines. At present there are two steam trains a day from Poznan, about 50 miles away, carrying commuters, leisure passengers and not a few British rail enthusiasts – some of whom may actually be driving the train, thanks to the footplate possibilities offered.

X Xilokastro Once a day, InterCity train 20 runs from here along the spectacular line that curls across the south shore of the Gulf of Corinth to Patras, then south through the Pelopponese to Kalamata.

Y Yaroslavskaya This Moscow terminus is one end of the Trans-Siberian Railway – the longest in the world. In the 21st century, this ribbon of steel is the best way to see the country that has emerged from the wreckage of communism. The Trans-Siberian rolls on forever: from Europe across the Urals and the length of Asia, at an average 40mph, on a line carved through a hostile environment using only the primitive technology of the 19th century.

Z Zittau Four hours (and €34) south of Berlin, this town is notable as the place that Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic meet. It has a narrow-gauge steam train to the spa resorts of Oybin and Jonsdorf – a mining railway that was originally built in 1890.

Additional research by Freddie Reynolds