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The need for speed: Europe's trains beat planes

(The following appeared on The Age website on October 8, 2009.)

LONDON — With the advent of high-speed trains, rail travel in Europe has become so popular that some intercity flight routes are being cancelled.

Why would you fly from London to Paris, for example, and tackle Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle airport check-ins plus security when you can catch a high-speed train that lands you right in the centre of town?

Now about 90 per cent of people travel by Eurostar between these two cities.

And there's no longer any flights on the Paris-Brussels route. Many now also go by train between London and Brussels.

High-speed trains are continually being introduced to new routes.

"If you are travelling less than 1500km, taking the train wins," says Rail Europe CEO Pierre-Stephane Austi.

"It gives the sensation that Europe is really becoming smaller.

"...Rail has completely changed because of the high-speed system."

He predicts that in two years most of the shorter airline routes will be "finished" in Europe.

And because of this train stations have been recreated as bustling centres in their own right.

"They are modern, bigger, more beautiful, offering centres of real shopping and leisure."

During a media briefing in Sydney, Austi explained Rail Europe sells its tickets all over the world outside Europe. People can book online and receive their tickets 24 hours later and the tickets are a set price.

But booking a long way ahead, of course, is cheaper - and also more reliable as trains often fill up fast.

Customers here can buy rail passes and the system has been made simpler to try to ensure they always get a seat.

As a first step outside Europe, Rail Europe will be distributing for Amtrak, the US train system, with both passes and point-to-point travel.

Rail Europe is planning to expand into distribution for Japanese and Indian trains (starting with the luxury trains in India) as well so their ticketing will be available on its system.

A Rail Protection Plan has also been launched, which makes a big difference if your rail pass or ticket is lost or stolen in Europe.

Austi says European countries are investing in putting in high-speed railway lines because it's "how they want their people to travel" and "it's better to invest in the rail networks than more roads".

This includes Italy and Spain and increasingly the eastern bloc countries, with new high-speed routes being planned and gradually opening up such as Paris to Moscow and Helsinki to St Petersburg, which are both on the developing table.

Madrid to Barcelona is already high-speed and high-speed tracks are being built between the south of France and Spain.

Amsterdam and Cologne will be approximately three hours 15 minutes from Paris and around one hour 45 minutes from Brussels by the end of this year.

The Italians launched new services last December from Milan to Rome - it takes about four hours. Direct services between Naples and Milan take five hours.

RailJet, a new premium rail service between Budapest, Vienna and Munich started last December and is constantly developing with up to six trains per day.

Vienna-Zurich and services to Zagreb in Croatia and Llubliana (Slovenia) are planned for around 2012-2014.

Austi says train travel is much more environmentally friendly than planes or cars. Less than 17kg of CO2 is emitted per person on a Paris to Frankfurt train journey as compared to 116kg by car or 67kg by plane for the same trip.

He says the onboard services are also being improved, such as availability of organic meals and WiFi access.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

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