Published Thursday, March 29, 2007, in USA Today
European rail lines taking a giant leap
By César G. Soriano
Europe's map is about to get a lot smaller.
The opening of several high-speed train lines this year will
dramatically shrink travel times across the continent that, in some
cases, will be faster than flying.
For Americans flocking to Europe this summer, the change will be most
noticeable in France with the opening of the TGV-East <http://www.tgvest.com
line on June 10 that will finally connect the French and German
high-speed rail networks.
Travel times from Paris to the popular northeast provinces of
Champagne, Lorraine and Alsace will be slashed in half, allowing
visitors to tour the region's famous Champagne houses by day and be
back in Paris for dinner.
Or how about lunch in Strasbourg to sample its famous foie gras? The
journey time from Paris to Strasbourg, on the German border, will be
cut from four hours to two hours, 20 minutes.
Also opening this year:
* The 21-mile-long Lötschberg tunnel <http://www.blsalptransit.ch
beneath the Swiss Alps will trim journey times by up to 50% between
Germany and northern Italy when it opens June 16. The Lötschberg base
tunnel also will earn the title of longest land tunnel in the world.
* London and Paris will be within day-tripping distance of each other
-- just more than two hours -- when the High Speed 1 line from London
to the Channel Tunnel, or "Chunnel," opens Nov. 14. [BATN: Worse than
useless Flash-ridden website <http://www.lcrhq.co.uk
* Spain's largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, will soon be just
2-1/2 hours apart by train, down from four hours. New trains will
make the 375-mile journey at up to 220 mph, one of the fastest in
Europe. The opening date is expected to be announced by year's end.
* The Netherlands' long-delayed high-speed line will begin partial
service in December, shaving travel times among Amsterdam, Rotterdam
and Antwerp. Amsterdam will be just 90 minutes from Brussels and
three hours from Paris when the line is completed in mid-2008.
Europe is investing heavily in expanding its high-speed network.
By 2020 it will stretch from Portugal to Poland.
"We're at the foothold of a revolution in short-haul travel in
Europe," says Simon Montague, spokesman for the Eurostar high-speed
train service, which operates between London, Paris and Brussels.
Traveling by train has always been a rite of passage for U.S.
visitors. Over the past decade, trains have taken a back seat to
airplanes, spurred by a boom in low-cost airlines.
But in recent months, a greater awareness of the environmental
effect of traveling and the growth of "green travel" is swinging
the pendulum back in favor of trains, says Mark Smith, rail industry
consultant and editor of <http://www.Seat61.com
>, a guide to
traveling around the world solely by train or boat.
"We certainly are seeing something of a backlash against short-haul
flights in Europe," Smith says. "People here are very concerned
about lowering their carbon footprints."
A recent British government study concluded that although the aviation
industry produces less than 2% of carbon dioxide worldwide, it is the
fastest growing sector of greenhouse gas emissions.
Britain responded in February by doubling a tax on airline passengers,
adding about $20 a ticket on short-haul flights and $80 on long-haul
flights originating in the United Kingdom. The travel industry has
sued the government over the tax increase. But for the time being,
the price increase is pushing people toward train travel.
"In Europe, there is a fast-growing alternative to short-haul air
travel that produces less carbon emissions and causes less
environmental damage," Montague says.
The rail industry is also pushing the convenience factor. For
example, security checks at European airports have become longer,
stricter and widely inconsistent since British authorities uncovered
a suspected terror plot last August to blow up passenger jets.
There are fewer such concerns for trains, which also are not beholden
to delays caused by bad weather, slow baggage handling, crowded
runways and air traffic.
High-speed trains whisk you city center to city center, avoiding
pricey transfers. In November, Euro-star will move its London
headquarters from Waterloo to St. Pancras, a more convenient station
with greater connections to the rest of England and Scotland.
"If you travel low-cost airlines, you have to budget the time and
expense to schlep to a weird, out-of-the-way airport at least two
hours ahead of your flight," says Chris Lazarus of Rail Europe.
As for those low-cost airfares, the tickets aren't as cheap as they
appear on paper. That 2-cent advertised airfare from London to Rome
quickly climbs to more than $100 after taxes, and that's not counting
fees for such extras as checked baggage and reserved seats.
Europe's rail operators are taking a page from the airline industry
with the creation of Rail Team, a seven-country alliance that will
soon offer through-ticketing, fast connections and simple timetables.
Some airlines such as Continental and KLM offer code-sharing with
high-speed trains and the ability to earn frequent-flier miles.
Some train aficionados wistfully complain that the romance of European
train travel is in danger of extinction as rail companies continue
operating more like airlines. They point to the extinction of the
Orient Express -- after more than 100 years in service. The current
Orient Express, the overnight train from Paris to Vienna, will cease
running in June when the TGV-East high-speed line opens.
"High-speed trains have a panache of their own that makes airlines
look dowdy," Smith says, noting that the new TGV high-speed trains
will have interiors designed by Christian Lacroix.
"Americans coming over here taking a dozen flights will have the same
experience a dozen times," Smith says. "If you take the train, every
journey is different. Taking the train is a unique European
"There's more to travel than the destination," Smith says. "It used
to be called a journey."
ALL ABOARD FOR FASTER TIMES
Travel times in hours between select European cities, before and
after the opening of new high-speed rail lines:
Key: Current time -> Future time
As of June 10
Paris-Reims: 1:25 -> 0:45
Paris-Nancy: 2:40 -> 1:30
Paris-Luxembourg: 3:35 -> 2:05
Paris-Strasbourg: 4:00 -> 2:20
Paris-Frankfurt: 6:30 -> 4:30
Paris-Zürich: 6:10 -> 4:30
As of Nov. 14
London-Paris: 2:40 -> 2:15
London-Brussels: 2:28 -> 1:51
By late 2007
Basel-Milan: 5:08 -> 4:10
Bern-Milan: 3:56 -> 2:58
Basel-Torino: 7:36 -> 6:38
Madrid-Barcelona: 4:00 -> 2:30
Brussels-Amsterdam: 3:00 -> 2:30
By late 2008
Brussels-Amsterdam: 3:00 -> 1:30
Amsterdam-Paris: 4:00 -> 3:00
London-Amsterdam: 7:40 -> 3:30
Sources: SNCF, Eurostar, HSL-Zuid, International Union of Railways
[BATN: See also:
Schwarzenegger says private sector should fund high-speed rail
HSR projects to make European rail travel even faster
Schwarzenegger orchestrating a slow death for high-speed rail
Planned Europe-Africa rail link underlines US shortcomings
Letter: Schwarzenegger wrong to kill high-speed rail
Schwarzenegger budget would starve high-speed rail to death
California high-speed rail needs funds to get underway
Schwarzenegger may kill high-speed rail to widen roads, warm planet
Comment: Schwarzenegger ignores transit-enviroment link
Schwarzenegger: high-speed rail not a priority
Schwarzenegger may postpone high-speed rail indefinitely
Europeans remain serious about HSR, while US is all talk
US rail infrastructure likened to that of a 3rd-World country
USA, land of worse-than-3rd-world intercity public transit