Rail travel between key European cities has become dramatically faster with the opening of new services in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy.

Sunday morning's 8.01 departure from Paris Gare du Nord to Cologne was the first high-speed Thalys service to Germany, expected to complete the journey in 3 hours 14 minutes, 36 minutes faster than the previous time. Travelers between Brussels and Amsterdam will be able to complete the international journey by train in 1 hour 53 minutes, saving 49 minutes.

A new high-speed service between Milan and Rome also goes into passenger operations Sunday, capable of reaching speeds of up to 360 kilometers per hour (225 miles per hour) and cutting the journey to 2 hours 45 minutes. Rome to Turin will will take just four hours and ten minutes, slashing one hour 30 minutes off the current time. Both Trenitalia and Thalys plan to offer tickets at a discounted introductory rate.

While high-speed rail travel has traditionally been considered expensive to run due to the initial and ongoing infrastructure costs, European rail has seen considerable activity in 2009. Earlier this year, the European Union announced that it would open up international rail lines to competition on January 1, 2010, meaning that any operator will - theoretically - be able to bid to run any service. Thalys is one of several European high-speed rail systems which could soon see competition on its route, whilst Italian firm Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV) will run services in direct competition with Trenitalia on the same high speed line from 2011. Another route likely to be viewed as attractive is the line currently running Eurostar services, which connects Great Britain with France underneath the Channel.