See Europe at 186mph: The Tunnel will link us to some very fast trains. And they leave on time, says Simon Calder

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The Independent Travel
EUROSTAR this week announced its plans to run high-speed trains through the Channel Tunnel. Eurostar trains will bring the shape of the future to Britain's railways, if not the speed. But while they will travel at only 100mph in Britain, they will connect with some real high-speed services.

France: the 186mph Train a Grande Vitesse, on which the Eurostar concept is based, runs from Calais to Paris and on to Lyons and Bordeaux. From next month it will connect Charles de Gaulle airport, Euro Disney and Lyons airport, and there are ambitious plans for expansion.

Germany: InterCityExpress (ICE) trains travel at up to 150mph on existing Basel- Karlsruhe, Mannheim-Stuttgart and Wurzburg-Hanover routes. A new ultra-high- speed line is to be built between Germany's two largest cities, Berlin and Hamburg.

Russia: the only remotely high-speed train is the ER200, which runs once a week between Moscow and St Petersburg. It covers the 400 miles in five hours, three hours faster than conventional services.

Spain: the Alta Velocidad Espanola (AVE) line runs from Madrid to Seville, averaging 120mph. Connections with Spain's other railways are tricky: the conventional network uses a different gauge.

Low-speed Europe The slowest trains are those of Albanian Railways. On a good day (woefully few), the 60-mile journey from the capital, Tirana, to the northern city of Shkodra takes more than three hours. One rival is BR's Slough-Paddington journey on InterCity's original High Speed Train. Although capable of 125mph, on Sundays this stretch is covered at just 40mph.

FLORENCE TO ROME ON THE ESPRESSO-FREE EXPRESS Watching Italy's crack express approach is like seeing something out of a Sixties film entitled What Trains Will Look Like in 2002. The science fiction that Britain's Advanced Passenger Train became (a prototype is rusting quietly outside Crewe station) is a reality in Italy's ETR 450. The number does not refer to its top speed, which at an average of 130mph is considerably slower than France's TGV. But while the TGV requires new, flat and straight tracks for optimum performance, Italy's pendolino runs on existing lines.

The red-and-white express runs not from Florence's main station but from Rifredi, an unpromising suburb 10 minutes away. The reason is that the main Milan-Rome line bypasses the city. The train actually begins in Milan, but it is only on the stretch from Florence that it runs at top speed.

The train draws in amid much whirring, humming and whooshing, and the doors wheeze open. You may think you have mistakenly entered first class. There are just three seats across, and they are much more opulent than Italian railways' usual idea of comfort. The ride is ultra-comfortable, too. Instead of feeling all those G-forces every time you round a bend, a series of levers makes the Leaning Train of Italy tilt like a cyclist taking a corner.

The result is that you sway gently from side to side, but in a manner which simply makes you want to drift off to sleep.

The train is made by Fiat, but has an engine considerably more powerful than 500cc. Perhaps to make British visitors feel at home, the 10.40am to Rome ground to a puzzling halt five minutes out of Florence. However, the ETR accelerates much more rapidly than most trains, so 10 minutes later we were passing Ferraris on the autostrada. This six-mile corridor must be the Ferroviale Statale's (the state railway's) best advertisement.

Italian trains, as Inter-Railers know, are covered in signs saying E pericoloso sporgese. You cannot lean out of these windows, as they are double-glazed, nor can you expect to share bread and wine with your fellow travellers; on this route they are business travellers.

Plunging into a tunnel gives you the chance to study the interior more closely. Everything looks a touch jaded and travel-soiled, with seats and carpets coffee-stained. The origin of the stains is mysterious, since no coffee is being consumed. The catering staff are from the BR school of customer care, which means if you fancy an espresso as your express flashes through Orvieto, half-way along the journey, you will be assured it is too late.

Even without the stimulus of caffeine, the final half-hour of the journey is the most exciting. The train slaloms through Lazio, threading its way between or beneath the hills. Finally, the red-and-white arrow pierces the boundary of Rome, makes a sharp, right-hand, tilting turn and glides into Termini station 90 minutes, and 200 miles, after leaving Florence.

(Photograph omitted)

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