News: Europe on the fast track

From tomorrow, many rail travellers across Europe will experience faster, smoother journeys. The annual December schedule change provides train operators with the biggest opportunity of the year to enhance rail services.

Travellers to Prague can experience the most radical developments. The link with Vienna gets a fleet of fast new tilting trains, and the domestic service to Ostrava has been much improved. Prague will also be easier to reach from Germany, with an extra train added from Nuremberg. A new EuroCity train will head south from Prague to Ljubljana.

Investment in new high-speed railways continues apace. Although France has no new lines opening this month, the line from Rennes to St Malo has been electrified. The first train à grande vitesse will depart from Paris tomorrow to this historic seaside town.

The "missing link" of the French high-speed network, the TGV est line, is expected to open in 2007. This will herald high-speed services to Reims, Nancy, Metz and Strasbourg - with Luxembourg included in the scheme. There are also plans for three daily trains from Lille to Strasbourg, giving easy interchange with Eurostar services from London and saving about three hours compared with the present journey via Paris.

Italy has a record number of construction projects on the go, which will eventually join on to the existing Florence-Rome high-speed line to form a massive 888km route between Turin and Naples, saving more than two hours on through journeys.

The immediate excitement concerns the Rome-Naples section, which is about ready to open, and the stretch between Turin and Novara is also expected to go live before the Winter Olympics in February.

In Germany, the biggest developments are scheduled for May next year, when an important new station will open on the rail artery through Berlin, bringing together all the capital's mainline services into one central station. At the same time, a new 89km high-speed line will open between Nuremberg and Ingolstadt, benefiting travellers heading to the Bavarian capital, Munich.

It is not all good news - some overnight services have been cut back - but the overall picture continues to be one of better, faster services, and more people letting the train take the strain.

PASSENGERS using the Stansted Express between London Liverpool Street and the Essex airport get mixed news. From tomorrow, services will run every 15 minutes, seven days a week, filling in gaps in the timetable. But the journey time for most departures increases; some are now scheduled to take 49 minutes, compared with 41 minutes when the link was first introduced.

At London City airport, meanwhile, the new Docklands Light Railway link finally opened this week - 18 years after the airport first opened. The new extension connects with the existing DLR network (and the Tube's Jubilee Line) at Canning Town, and stops at four new stations en route. Driverless trains run every seven minutes, making it the UK's most frequent airport rail link. From Bank station at the heart of the City, direct trains take 22 minutes.

Brendan Fox is editor of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable; www.thomascookpublishing.com

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