The Complete Guide To: High-speed Europe

New timetables are about to bring faster Continental trains, so sit back, relax and enjoy the ride, says Anthony Lambert


IS THIS THE AGE OF THE TRAIN?

Yes. Tomorrow, a new pan-European rail timetable heralds a year of accelerations and improvements of fast trains across Europe. Together with enhancements scheduled for the coming years, they will serve to make the train the rational - and aesthetic - choice for many more journeys within Europe. Even a tiny stretch of track can make a big difference. For example, a 1,400ft section of new line into Brussels Midi will open. The benefit will be out of all proportion to its length: it will cut the fastest journey from London on Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) to just two hours 11 minutes. And by separating high-speed trains from domestic services, it will enhance reliability and make connections for Dutch and German destinations much more dependable.

As air travel becomes ever more stressful - and environmentally damning - easy and reliable terrestrial links to destinations such as Amsterdam and Cologne are looking ever more attractive.

In contrast to planes, trains usually take you to the heart of a city, saving you time and money getting to and from airports. There is none of the delay and palaver of airport check-ins, and because you don't have to switch transport modes, you can relax and concentrate on uninterrupted work in more spacious surroundings, often with plug-ins for laptops and sometimes internet access. Trains give you a sense of travelling, as well as the pleasure of watching the changing landscape roll by the window. It's a great time for thinking: the idea for Harry Potter came to J K Rowling while on a train between Manchester and London.

WHERE ELSE CAN I FIND TRACK RECORDS?

From tomorrow, many north-south trains in Germany are being accelerated by half an hour thanks to a high-speed line between Nuremberg and Ingolstadt. One effect should be to reduce the London-Brussels-Cologne-Munich journey time to under 10 hours. For business travellers, this enables a smooth, productive journey; leisure passengers will be able to add seductive stopovers, such as Cologne. Here, you can sleep, comfortably, in the Hauptbahnhof: Station Backpackers at Marzellenstrasse 44 (00 49 221 912 5301; www.hostel-cologne.de) shares premises with the German Rail lost-property office. Doubles cost €50 (£35), excluding breakfast. For a historic alternative, check in to the Hotel im Wasserturm - which occupies a water tower at Kaygasse 2 (00 49 221 200 80; www.hotel-im-wasserturm.de). The rooms (€230/£164 without breakfast) are minimalist and the structure astounding. Schedules to Cologne and beyond can be found either in the comprehensive Thomas Cook European Timetable (£11.50 monthly, from branches or online at www.thomascookpublishing.com), or on the Deutsche Bahn site, www.bahn.co.uk. You can book tickets on 08702 43 53 63. The other main focus for improvement of the excellent German network is increased frequency. Long-distance InterCityExpress (ICE) services become hourly, such as Hamburg-Berlin-Leipzig-Munich and Frankfurt-Dresden. Trains through Berlin call at the new multi-level Hauptbahnhof, one of the most striking station reconstructions of recent years.

SOUTHBOUND TRAINS?

The high-speed line between Madrid and Barcelona is almost completed, with the opening tomorrow of the Lleida-Tarragona section, bringing the fastest journey between the great rival cities down to around four hours. The new line from Madrid to Malaga is also nearly finished, with journey times down to under four hours. These developments make multi-centre trips around Spain more plausible - and also offer superb sightseeing as you race through the country at close to 200mph. In particular, the new line east from Lleida carves through spectacular terrain in the foothills of the Pyrenees en route to the historic city of Tarragona. See www.renfe.es for details and an excellent booking engine.

YOU HAVEN'T MENTIONED BRITAIN...

Not yet, because tomorrow sees few substantial improvements to services. But on Eurostar's 13th birthday, 14 November 2007, London will finally be plugged into the European high-speed network, when High Speed 1 opens. This is the second and last stage of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, connecting the existing fast track at Southfleet Junction in Kent with a rebuilt St Pancras station. Trains will run at 186mph within minutes of leaving London, instead of ambling along Kent's commuter lines, saving 20 minutes on journeys to Paris and Brussels. The fastest train to the Belgian capital will take 111 minutes, while Paris will be just two hours 15 minutes away.

BUT I REALLY LIKE WATERLOO INTERNATIONAL...

Tough. Eurostar has chosen to move all its services to St Pancras, abandoning the emblematic terminal on the South Bank to South West Trains. The new terminus will bear little resemblance to the old cathedral of the steam age when it reopens: it will have the longest champagne bar in Europe, a top-class brasserie, a gastropub, and even a farmers' market. St Pancras is also more convenient than Waterloo for many more users from the Midlands and the North; and although people living on lines into Waterloo will lose out, their overall journey time should be little altered, thanks to the faster services to Brussels and Paris.

A new station will open at Ebbsfleet, just south of the Thames and off the M25, and will soak up almost all of the "stopping" trains that currently serve Ashford International - which will be reduced to three trains to Paris and none to Brussels.

PRESUMABLY, THE FRENCH ARE SHOWING OFF

Yes, but they have much of which to be proud. Even before Britain opens the first high-speed line from London, France is about to add yet another arm to the TGV network with the opening of the high-speed line between Paris Gare de l'Est and Baudrecourt on 10 June next year. TGVs will reach Strasbourg from the French capital in two hours 20 minutes, reaching higher speeds than other TGVs, at 200mph.

Many other destinations will benefit, with Reims a mere 45 minutes from Paris; Luxembourg two hours five minutes; Basel three hours 20 minutes; and Zurich four hours 35 minutes. The new trains will be an improvement on previous TGVs, with increased legroom, business areas with spaces for laptops and wireless internet, and family areas with built-in board games. You can even arrange a taxi through the train conductor. Later in the year, additional * * international services may be added via TGV Est and parallel routes, such as a German ICE-operated train between Paris and Frankfurt via Saarbrücken, taking three hours 50 minutes - below the psychologically important four-hour limit.

WHAT'S THAT?

Four hours or less seems to be the critical journey time that attracts business travellers away from planes to trains. At present, there are flights every 45 minutes or so between the two key financial centres of Frankfurt and Paris - if experience elsewhere in Europe is repeated, fast trains will sharply reduce the appetite for flying.

To win traffic from airlines, European railway operators have to maximise the number of journeys that can be completed within the magic four hours. Quick, easy connections are vital, and seven European train operators have formed Railteam, to make cross-border travel as seamless and affordable as possible. Brussels connections will improve from 11 February, and the opening of sections of high-speed lines between Brussels and Amsterdam later in the year will see journey times cut by almost 25 minutes in 2007, with further reductions in 2008.

ANY OTHER FEATS OF ENGINEERING?

Yes: in Switzerland, naturally. On 10 December 2007, the 22-mile Lötschberg base tunnel, between Frutigen and Raron, will open to passenger trains running at 145mph, allowing an hour to be lopped off the time of Basel-Milan tilting trains. This is the first of two base tunnels through the Alps - the second being the even longer Gotthard. Both were voted for in referendums by the Swiss, with the principal intention of transferring freight traffic to rail, but the tunnels will be of great benefit to passenger services.

Some leisure travellers may fear that the slow trains over the old routes will disappear; fortunately, you will still be able to take the spectacular route that twists and turns up to the resort of Kandersteg. In fact, new trains with panoramic windows are being built for the stopping service over the line; they will enter service in early 2008.

HOW MUCH IS ALL THIS GOING TO COST ME?

Not as much as you think, providing that you can book ahead and choose the time of travel, as many countries are copying the airlines in offering online cheap book-ahead fares. Booking on most railways is available three months ahead, but some operators, such as Eurostar, have extended it to four. Most railways raise their fares in line with, or slightly above, inflation at the timetable change, but following the German Railways' price increase on 10 December, there is a logic-defying increase in VAT of 3 per cent on rail fares from 1 January 2007, which applies to all transport tickets, irrespective of the environmental impact.

Emulating the airlines, French Railways this year inaugurated iDTGV fares, which can be booked up to four months in advance through the Rail Europe website (08708 304 862; www.raileurope.co.uk/idtgv), printing out your ticket. Single lead-in fares of €19 (£13.50) are available from Paris to destinations such as Marseille, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Aix-en-Provence and Toulouse. You can choose your on-board ambience: iDzen for serenity, with sleep kits available; or iDzap for interactive entertainment, where you can hire a games console (€6/£4) or DVD player and films (€9.50/£7).

CAN SOMEONE ORGANISE A RAIL HOLIDAY FOR ME?

Several travel operators specialise in organising European rail-based holidays, either guided or independent. Ffestiniog Travel (01766 512 400; www.festtravel.co.uk) and Great Railway Journeys (01904 521 915; www.greatrail.com) both have a wide range of largely escorted rail-based holidays. GRJ offers 37 holidays that begin and end with a Eurostar journey from London. The Railway Touring Company (01553 661 500; www.railwaytouring.co.uk) has a programme aimed more at rail buffs, seeking out railway byways with great scenery and character. Other specialists in rail tickets, often with special offers, are European Rail Ltd (020-7387 0444; www.europeanrail.com) and Trainseurope Ltd (0871 700 7722; www.trainseurope.co.uk).

WHAT ABOUT RAIL PASSES?

There is a huge range of international, national and regional rail passes. The biggest change for 2007 is the simplification of the passes by subsuming the Eurodomino pass into the InterRail Pass from 1 April. A wide range of regional tickets - covering a few of the 30 or so participating countries - will be available. A new Global Pass will be available, covering all the nations for five days' travel within 10 days, 10 within 22, 22 continuous days, and a month. It will also be possible to buy passes for travel within a single country for three, four, six and eight days within a month. Prices are not yet available.

Many passes require supplements for high-speed trains, so assess whether it is cheaper to buy single tickets - particularly if you know precisely when and where you will be travelling, and can take advantage of advance-booking deals. In 2006, a single-zone pass started at £215 for a 16-day pass for an adult (over 26) - less than £14 a day.

WHAT'S NEXT?

By mid-2009, Geneva will be three hours from Paris, and a new stretch of line between Perpignan and Figueres in Spain will herald a new TGV service from Paris to Barcelona. By 2010, the entire high-speed line between Milan and Naples should be open. From 2010, an EU directive means that the Channel Tunnel will open up to other operators, so the cities served by direct trains from London could expand.

Stratford International, on the Eurostar link from St Pancras, will play a key role in transport to the 2012 London Olympic Games, and the station is likely to open when the Docklands Light Railway is extended to it, in 2010. Most Western European countries are investing heavily in high-speed infrastructure - Spain averages €7.7bn (£5.5bn) a year - so there's a programme of improvements to 2020 and beyond. Sadly, nothing is planned in Britain after High Speed 1.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Visit the remarkable website created by Mark Smith ( www.seat61.com), which gives advice on train travel, tickets and passes throughout the world, with many useful links. Insight Guides' Great Railway Journeys of Europe (£16.99), to which I am a contributor, highlights the most scenic rail journeys.

ENVIRONMENTAL AUDIT

People who fly between London, Paris and Brussels generate 10 times more emissions of CO2 than those who go by rail. A Eurostar passenger generates enough CO2 to fill a Mini, while an airline passenger generates enough to fill a double-decker bus.

With thanks to Brendan Fox, Gareth Headon, Rodney Maton, Amanda Monroe, Tom Parker, Lesley Retallack, Ivan Rodrigues, Oliver Ueck and Nick Varian

SLOW AND LUXURIOUS

For those in search of train travel redolent of the days when railway carriages required the skill of the cabinet-maker, there are some fine trains in which to explore Europe.

The grandest way to enjoy the Highlands is by the Royal Scotsman (0845 077 2222; www.royalscotsman.com), which takes just 35 guests in ensuite mahogany-walled cabins on a tour of some of Europe's most magnificent lines, lasting between two days and a week. From the train guests visit castles, distilleries and private homes. Prices start at £1,680.

Two very different trains introduce visitors to Spain: the metre-gauge El Transcantabrico ( www.transcantabrico.feve.es) weaves across northern Spain and even has a hydro-sauna on board to relax in after the day excursions (€2,300/£1,643 per person in a double cabin); the Al Andalus (020-7224 0345; www.spanish-rail.co.uk) leaves Seville weekly for a tour of the southern cities of Córdoba and Ronda, amongst others (€2,700/£1,929 per person in a double cabin).

A varied programme of day, weekend and week-long tours is offered by the British Pullman and Northern Belle trains operated by Orient Express (0845 077 2222; www.orient-express.com), starting at £150. For the first time, the Orient Express of historic Wagon-Lits coaches, that glides principally between Paris and Venice, will venture into Poland during its 2007 peregrinations; it will visit Krakow and Warsaw during a seven-night journey (with three nights on the train) starting on 7 July from Venice and terminating in Prague. Prices are £4,000 per person for a double compartment on the outward journey and £3,650 on the return.

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