For travelers with wanderlust, exploring Europe by train has long been a rite of passage. The romance of the railways, visions of castles and Alpine villages from the bar car window seat, it’s an experience you can’t re-create at 30,000 feet.
After a decade of being overshadowed by the low-cost airline boom, Europe’s railways are undergoing a renaissance. New high-speed rail lines are bringing cities closer together. Trains are being upgraded and modernized. Train stations are returning to their former grandeur. It’s all taking place amidst a very public backlash against Europe’s aviation industry.
“Flying is no longer fun,” says Mark Smith, editor of the train travel Web site Seat61.com.
“People have been driven away from flying by the security checks, the long check-in times, the hassle to get to the airports, delays and cancellations, lost luggage. People are fed up and looking for a less-stressful means of travel,” says Smith.
Meanwhile, a growing concern about the environmental impact of short-haul flights is attracting a new generation of train riders, says Smith.
“People are concerned about cutting their carbon footprint. Trains are not only faster in many cases, but also less stressful, more reliable and better for the environment.”
For tourists, the changes will be most noticeable in the reduced travel times. European governments are spending billions
of dollars to build new high-speed lines that are bringing top tourist destinations within day-tripping distance.
In February, Spain inaugurated one of the fastest long-distance passenger trains in the world between Madrid and Barcelona. The 350-mile trip takes just 2 hours 38 minutes, down from almost 6 hours before the line was built.
The Netherlands’ long-delayed first high-speed line is set to open in late 2008, shaving an hour off the Amsterdam-to-Paris travel time, making it just 3 hours 12 minutes. Trains from Amsterdam to London via Brussels will drop from almost 6 hours to just 4 hours.
The Eurostar now departs London from St. Pancras International, a beautifully restored Victorian Gothic station that has been dubbed Europe’s “Railway Cathedral.” The mammoth station features shops, restaurants and a 295-foot-long champagne bar, Europe’s longest.
Eurostar’s London-to-Paris high-speed line, completed in November, whisks passengers at 187 miles per hour to complete the journey in just over 2 hours. A flight between the two cities would take about 1 hour, but when you factor in the 2-hour minimum check-in times and travel from downtown to airports, the train easily beats the plane. Eurostar had a 91 percent on-time arrival record in 2007, compared with just 68 percent for planes flying the same route.
In France, the new TGV Est line has dramatically reduced travel times from Paris to the Champaign region and beyond. The trip time from Paris to Strasbourg on the German border fell from 4 hours to 2 hours 20 minutes, while the Paris-to-Frankfurt trip has been slashed from 6 hours to just 3 hours 10 minutes. French fashion designers created the TGV’s new train interiors, giving them the look and feel of a posh boutique hotel.
Further east, the 21-mile-long Lotschberg Base Tunnel through the Swiss Alps opened in December, trimming journey times by up to 50 percent between Southern Germany and Northern Italy. The tunnel also has the distinction of being the longest land tunnel in the world.
With the U.S. dollar at record lows against the euro and the British pound, day-tripping by train can help American visitors get more bang for their buck.
So what’s the cost? Generally, train journeys under 5 hours are comparable or cheaper than low-cost airlines. Long-distance and overnight sleeper trains tend to be more expensive.
Like airline tickets, the sooner you book your train, the better the deal. But unlike airlines, trains do not impose ridiculous fees for bringing luggage or a baby on board. And you won’t be kicked off for carrying a bottle of water or tube of toothpaste.
“It’s a less stressful way to travel,” says Smith. “Taking the train is a unique European experience.”
* RailEurope.com is the official U.S. ticket vendor for the European rail industry. Unless you plan to take many train trips through many countries, it’s generally cheaper to buy point-to-point tickets.
Tips and tricks
* Shop around. For American residents, it’s often cheaper to buy tickets directly from the European train operator, such as Eurostar (www.Eurostar.com) or the French Railways (www.voyages-sncf.com), and opt to pick them up at the station. The Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com) is the definitive guide to traveling Europe by train.
Dining and shopping
* London’s St. Pancras International is not only a station, it’s a destination. The $1.6 billion renovation includes fine restaurants, pubs, shops and Europe’s longest champagne bar, with more opening later this year.