Airports are an ordeal – even without this week's security alert. Now a pan-European project aims to relaunch the golden age of rail. There's never been a better time to let the train take the strain

Railways created the world we know. Before railways, there were no seaside resorts, no suburbs, no standard time. Now Europe's railways are trying to change the way we travel in a world that has been reshaped – and threatens to be asphyxiated – by car and air travel.

Seven high-speed railway operators, including the partly British Eurostar, have joined forces to make inter-city rail travel across Europe simpler and cheaper. On one level, this could be dismissed as just a marketing exercise.

There will be one internet site – www.Railteam.eu – for booking through-journeys. There will be five big "hubs" (these are what we used to call "junctions") at Lille, Brussels, Cologne, Frankfurt and Stuttgart. There will be better connections between all the high-speed services.

Railteam's aim is to copy and compete with the alliances between international airlines, and to make cross-European rail travel a genuine, comfortable, and ecologically friendly alternative to the plane.

On paper, trains boast many selling points. Not only are they estimated to be responsible for four times less carbon emissions per passenger mile than aircraft, but they can be caught without enduring the terminal misery (made worse by recent terrorist attacks) of many European airports during summertime.

That said, objections can also be raised. Cut-price airlines are usually cheaper than trains, and sometimes much cheaper. The European high-speed network is taking shape (except in Britain) but it remains disjointed.

Even the new generations of even faster high-speed trains – reaching up to 250mph – will never be able to beat an aircraft for time on journeys such as London to Berlin.

Nonetheless, this week's announcement may come to be seen as an important milepost in the history of travel. The railway – so often mocked, so often dismissed as an "old technology", and so often associated in Britain with overcrowded, late, or cancelled commuter services – is reinventing itself for a more thoughtful and more eco-conscious age.

Almost 200 years after their invention in northern England, railways (if they are well run) are still the pleasantest and safest way to travel. In 27 years, the French Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) system has carried more than a billion passengers. There has not been one serious injury.

In the early days of railways in Britain, in the 1830s and 1840s, it was often impossible to book through-journeys with the different railway companies. It was the Railway Clearing Act of June 1850 which made that possible – even mandatory. A national rail system was born.

The creation of Railteam, after two years of difficult negotiations, will mark the similar birth of a true pan-European high-speed rail network. Cut-price return fares of around £69 will be offered on journeys such as London to Frankfurt (taking five hours, with one change) or London to Amsterdam (eventually taking only three hours).

Through-journey railway booking across European borders has been available, in theory, since the 19th century. However, many of the new high-speed services have not been included until now.

Journeys should be bookable on the Railteam network between any two stations in the seven countries involved – providing that part of the journey is by high-speed train.

There will also be a new service called HOP, allowing passengers who miss one connection to "hop" on to the next train without extra charge.

With the opening last month of the new high-speed line from Paris to eastern France, there are now 3,000 miles of fast tracks in Europe. When the Channel Tunnel link is completed through to St Pancras in November, Britain will have just 80 of them.

Despite several government and independent studies, and despite the overcrowding of Britain's motorways, airports and old railways, there are no plans to build new lines to, say, the north of England and Scotland. What a pity. Britain invented railways. Their reinvention for the 21st century threatens to shunt us into an 80 mile-long siding.

By 2010, with new stretches of line due to open in Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, Europe will have almost 4,000 miles of high-speed lines. Further stretches in France, Spain, Germany and Austria will bring the network to nearly 5,000 miles by 2020.

Soon after that, it is hoped, it will be possible to travel by high-speed train from Paris, Brussels or London to Munich, Vienna, Turin and Madrid.

It would be a pity – and a great mistake – if a concentration on new lines led us to neglect the old ones.

The old European railway network, mostly built in the 19th century, still works well and contains many treasures (as we explain below). Europe has the densest and most complete railway system in the world. Only India and Japan can begin to challenge it.

In theory, Railteam will help the two rail systems, new and old, to work together, and better sell themselves to the traveller.

The reinvention of the railway should therefore also be a process of rediscovery (and, where necessary, renewal). From freight to local services, railways still have much to offer us apart from a whirlwind romantic weekends in Paris. If it does nothing else, the new rail network should help Europeans to rekindle their love affair with railways. It is time to join the second railway age.

The Glacier Express (St Moritz to Zermatt)

Almost every line in Switzerland – a country that still truly appreciates railways – is worth a ride. The main line along Lake Geneva to Lausanne and through the Swiss vineyards of the upper Rhône valley is a delight.

Perhaps the most spectacular Swiss rail journey of all (others may disagree) is the Glacier Express, which bills itself as the slowest express train in the world. Twice a day, the bright red train takes seven and a half hours to travel about 100 miles from St Moritz to Zermatt (a place you cannot reach by road).

In that time, you cross 291 bridges and pass through 91 tunnels and over several mountain passes. There are stunning views of the Matterhorn in in the last stretch. You have a glittering white landscape in winter; carpets of flowers in spring and early summer.

Inverness to Wick

Many of the Highland lines in Scotland deserve a mention. Some people adore the route to Fort William and Mallaig in the West Highlands (where there are steam trains for tourists and enthusiasts in the summer), and there is also a wonderfully scenic line from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, which ends only a rowing boat's ride from the Isle of Skye.

Arguably the most spectacular, however, is the most northerly railway line in Britain, the route from Inverness to Thurso and Wick. In the last 30 or 40 miles, the line turns sharply inland to country that can't be reached by car and barely on foot.

Close your eyes and it feels as if the train is gliding over heather. Where else in Britain do you have a chance of seeing wild deer from a train? You cover about 120 miles in two and a half hours.

Oslo to Bergen

There's no such thing as the "wrong kind of snow" on this line: just keeping the track open in winter is a daily engineering miracle.

The journey, "over the roof" of Norway, is always listed among the top 10 railway trips in the world, let alone Europe. It takes seven hours to complete, which is hardly high-speed for an inter-city train. But the link is vital to Norway's economy: driving in the wintertime is often impossible; even air travel can be hazardous.

In any case, the scenery is so spectacular that seven hours will seem too short. Network Rail officials should be made to travel on this train every winter. Trains and snow can co-exist.

Carlisle to Leeds

This was the last completely new main railway line to be built in Britain before the Channel Tunnel Link began in 1994. It took 6,000 men with spades six years to lay the 72 miles of track through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Yorkshire fells and dales. Even when it opened in 1875, this was regarded as a phenomenally long time, so what would the builders of the so-called "Settle and Carlisle" have made of the endless delays in rebuilding the West Coast Main Line in the highly mechanised early 21st century?

The line was almost shut down in the 1970s when its most spectacular and emblematic structure, the 104ft-high Ribblehead viaduct, needed radical repairs. The route was reprieved and survives as one of the great railway experiences of Britain – and Europe.

Efforts have been made in recent years to promote the line as a tourist destination in its own right. Special steam trains often run in the summer. Otherwise there is a regular diesel train service between Leeds and Carlisle operated by Northern Rail.

Marseilles to Nice

Here, the high-speed train makes its way along the Riviera on the same route – and at the same speeds – used by steam trains in the last century. Somehow, from the train you don't see how much destruction has been wreaked along this beautiful stretch of coast. From a car – or a plane – you can see that the Côte d'Azur is now a kind of Gallic Florida, with blocks of flats and villas spreading deep into the hills. On the train, you can sit back and enjoy the apparently unspoiled scenery and pretend that you are Hercules Poirot on his way to solve a mystery in Monte Carlo.

Helsinki to Moscow

This is not a train to take for the scenery. It tends to be trees. And wheat. And more trees. In any case, the train – the "Tolstoy" – travels overnight. This is a journey to take for the atmosphere of Russian railways, changed since Anna Karenina passed this way but not that much changed. Tea is still brought to your seat, although no longer served from an old-fashioned Samovar.

You can pretend you are James Bond as the Russian border guards thrust forms into your face at 2am. They may have woken you from a deep slumber but at least that gives you a chance to see the train winched laboriously from one track (on the Finnish gauge) on to another (on the Russian gauge). You leave Helsinki just before 6pm and arrive in Moscow (sometimes) just before nine.

Sofia to Belgrade

The old Orient Express (Paris to Istanbul) no longer exists. There is a luxury train for tourists which uses the name but goes only to Vienna. To recapture the spirit of the Stamboul Train – immortalised by Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock – you can travel part of the original route on the Balkan Express, which connects Budapest and Istanbul in 27 hours. According to the train's website, "the comfort on board has nothing of a dream". You are, however, guaranteed plenty of Balkan atmosphere. The site goes on: "Travelling in second-class is very interesting for those who want to meet people. Trying to smuggle cigarettes, whisky, or God knows what, is the main occupation of the passengers." Beats the 8.07am from Colchester.

Lyon to Marseilles

Most of Europe's new high-speed rail network is, frankly, dull as it runs through the flat, congested plains of northern Europe. The one great exception is the extraordinary high-speed TGV line opened in 2000 that runs down the Rhône valley and over the hills of Provence to Marseilles.

The highlights of the line, south of Valence, are a beautiful switchback ride along the shoulder of the Alpine foothills; serial crossings of the river Rhône, culminating in a breathtaking double sloping viaduct south of Avignon; and then the whirlwind ride through the Provençal hills to Aix and Marseilles. And all this in about 40 minutes.

There are no shortage of trains on this line. They shoot along at 320kph (200mph) every five to 10 minutes. Couldn't they just slow down a bit to let us enjoy the view?

Krakow to Prague

Restaurant cars – such a big part of the romance of trains – are now extinct or disgusting in Western Europe. But they still thrive in the East, often in old carriages with brass fittings that could have been on the Train Bleu in 1923. Such a train is the slow connection between Krakow and Prague, two of the most beautiful cities in Europe, both of which miraculously survived the destruction of the Second World War.

There is an overnight train, but travellers in the know prefer the day version with its tatty old carriages and its cheap, atmospheric restaurant car. The countryside is also marvellous. The trip takes eight hours. One for lovers of life on the slow track.

Catania to Rome

It is a little-known fact that you can travel from London to Malta by train. There are a couple of ferry journeys thrown in but you could, for instance, take the Eurostar to Paris, the sleeping-car train from Paris to Rome and then the train south from Rome, which is ferried across to Catania in Sicily. Then you go on to Palermo and take another boat to Malta. The most romantic part of this odyssey is the train from Roma to Catania (about eight hours).

There used to be genuine train ferries on the Channel, which took the carriages aboard, but they disappeared long before the arrival of the Channel Tunnel and the Eurostar. The Catania crossing is now one of the last places in Europe than you can have the train-on-a-ship experience. It also gives you a taste of the wonders of Italian railways, which manage to be at once unusually regimented for Italy and utterly unpredictable. All that and a lovely journey through the villages and vineyards of southern Italy.

Prague to Budapest, via Bratislava

There is an Eastern Europe beyond Prague's Charles Bridge and its lairy stag do's. Take the train from Prague to Budapest, where you can leave the throng of easyJet travellers behind and experience some of Europe's undiscovered regions. From frozen lakes and wolf-inhabited forests to heavily industrial cityscapes, the views from this train are spectacular – and you still get the feeling you're the first person to see them. It's spectacular at any time of year, too: winter in the Danube valley means serious snow, while summer reveals lakeside dachas of a forgotten bourgeoisie. The day trains are a bit mustier than the sleepers, but the wooden carriages and red leather seats retain a certain Soviet charm. Trains leave from both of Prague's railway stations three times a day, and the eight-hour journey costs around £35. Many choose to extend their trip with a stopover in the Slovakian capital, Bratislava. Kate Proctor

The Snow Train, Paris to Bourg St Maurice

The Snow Train is a British middle-class institution. In ski season, hordes of salopette-toting hoorays travel from London to the Gare du Nord on Eurostar, before setting off on the night train for the mountains.

But Snow Trainers aren't sensible – they're British. If they're not half-cut by the time they reach Paris, a bottle of vin ordinaire at the station cafeteria ensures they're drunk by the time they reach the carriage. Once on board, the Brit follows a simple modus operandi. Find six-bed cabin. Locate tiny bed. Place suitcase on bed. Apologise in advance to five-person French family with misfortune of sharing cabin. Follow ears to The Disco Carriage.

The Disco Carriage is a travelling experience like no other. To the sound of Europop and 1980s classics, the assorted revellers quaff Kronenbourg as an inch of booze and unidentifiable effluent swims around their ankles. Generally, there are two or three good hours to enjoy before the first British teenager submits to nausea. After that, the stench quickly becomes unbearable. At this point, it is wise to return to one's couchette, where the French family will only be too happy to see you again. Ed Caesar

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