The age of the train - abroad, anyway

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The Independent Travel

While the most popular destination for British trains seems to be the Doldrums, the business of taking a foreign holiday by train has never been more buoyant. In Europe, rail companies are busy laying lines for high-speed trains which will dramatically cut journey times. By next June, the trip down to Marseilles will be shorter by as much as two hours; new routes from Brussels to Frankfurt, from Florence to Rome and from France deep into Spain will make independent travel by train yet more attractive.

While the most popular destination for British trains seems to be the Doldrums, the business of taking a foreign holiday by train has never been more buoyant. In Europe, rail companies are busy laying lines for high-speed trains which will dramatically cut journey times. By next June, the trip down to Marseilles will be shorter by as much as two hours; new routes from Brussels to Frankfurt, from Florence to Rome and from France deep into Spain will make independent travel by train yet more attractive.

According to Ian Macbeth, who runs the specialist company Great Rail Journeys (tel: 01904 521900; net: www.greatrail.com), the interest in European rail holidays has "skyrocketed". Three years ago train holidays to North America made up 75 per cent of the company's business, with travel in Europe accounting for the rest. Now, while the company still sells the same number of holidays crossing coast to coast and journeying through Canada and the US, the European routes have overtaken them and now represent the lion's share of holidays sold.

"Eurostar has transformed the market," he explains. "Now we can take clients quickly into the heart of Europe and connect with some excellent high-speed services. It's a leisurely option for our customers to board the train at Waterloo in time for lunch, and then either take an overnight stop or board a fast train in time for supper and sleeper journey before waking for breakfast in Madrid or Milan."

The most recent addition to the company's collection of rail trips is through Denmark and Sweden, a transport buff's delight, which combines travelling on a train ferry from Germany with a super-modern Swedish train and a cruise boat to Gothenburg.

Train travel not only suits our romantic notions of travelling "slowly"; it also gets us out of the disagreeable tussle and bad food associated with airports and flying. In the US, trains are essentially for tourists willing to pay a bit more than the road or air trip for the privilege of enjoying the restaurant and observation cars and a decent sleeper.

In the US there is really only one journey where the train is a serious alternative to flying or driving for the business traveller. The route between New York City and Washington DC has many more than the single service a day which characterises the rest of the network. Rail travel in the US, almost extinct when Amtrak, a public company, came to the rescue in the 1970s, is slow but scenic. Even the journey between San Francisco and Los Angeles takes a whole day. In exactly the opposite arrangement to that in the UK, Amtrak owns its own trains and it pays for them to run along the tracks of private railway companies. The trains are slow because freight always takes precedence - you travel at 60-65mph on the line in America.

But sometimes the train is the only way to appreciate the landscape. Last year I made the journey on the famous Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs in the red heart of Australia. Only on a trip by train through that endlessly hostile and magnificent scrubland and desert can one understand the Australian love and fear of the outback. The fact that we did not have to abandon the train and complete the journey on camels (driven by Afghans - hence the name of the route) as the early travellers did, made the trip yet sweeter. Oddly, a British company, Serco, now owns Great Southern Railways, which operates the Ghan.

One hopes it is better able to supply information about leisure train services than is the case in Britain. The main obstacle to better train holidays is shortage of information. The best source of service information about trains from Britain through Europe is a German website (net: www.bahn.de), which will report in a second on the best train from anywhere in the UK to anywhere in Europe. For tickets and intelligence on the matter of Inter-Rail, passes etc, try Travel Bureau Rail Tours (tel: 0800 698 7545).

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