Over the next eight years, European governments are set to install 2,046 miles (3,300 kilometers) of new high-speed track, more than doubling the current network. At the same time, Europe's railways are introducing a new generation of trains that reach top speeds of 217 miles per hour (350 kilometers per hour), up from about 186 mph (300 kph) now. One such superfast train began service earlier this year in Germany between Frankfurt and Cologne. Another will hit the rails in the next few months in Spain between Madrid and Barcelona. "In more and more places, the train is now faster than taking a plane," says Johannes Ludewig, executive director of the Brussels-based Community of European Railways.
Fast trains are increasingly grabbing market share from Europe's airlines, as rail travel time between major cities shrinks to three hours or less. That's a critical figure because air passengers, even on short-hop flights, usually spend at least three hours in transit, counting ground transportation and airport formalities. Train passengers, by contrast, travel directly from city center to city center, and most Western European destinations have no check-in formalities. And because trains aren't subject to air-traffic problems and weather-related delays, their on-time performance is much better than that of the airlines.
"OUR REAL COMPETITION." The Eurostar, a high-speed train linking Paris with London in three hours via the English Channel, now carries twice as many passengers as do flights between the two cities -- even though budget carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair have slashed fares to less than half the minimum $300 that the Eurostar charges for a weekday round-trip.
Air France has curtailed service to French cities served by high-speed trains, including the Mediterranean port of Marseille, now only three hours from Paris on a express line that opened in 2001. "Our real competition in the domestic market is not other airlines but the train," says Philippe Calavia, Air France's finance director.
Europe's fast trains are cutting into car travel, too. Before the high-speed Thalys train connecting Paris with Brussels was launched in the mid-1990s, 61% of travel between the two cities was by car and only 24% by train. Now, the Thalys has 50% of the market and cars only 43%, according to the International Union of Railways. That's not surprising, considering that driving from Paris to Brussels takes at least three hours. And taking into account highway tolls and Europe's $4-per-gallon gasoline prices, it costs about $40 each way to drive -- not that much less than a $63 one-way Thalys fare.
TAKE A WALK. Speed and relatively low prices are only part of the trains' appeal. The newer ones also offer amenities such as on-board Internet connections, video and DVD rentals, and children's play areas. And unlike air travelers, train passengers are free to use their cell phones and laptops, or stand up and stretch their legs whenever they want.
Until now, France has been Europe's champion of high-speed rail, having launched the region's first superfast train, the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), in 1981. But other countries are catching up (see table below). Speedy InterCity Express trains already link major German cities including Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Munich. Spain has a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville, and the new Madrid-to-Barcelona line, scheduled for completion in 2004, will cut travel time on that 385-mile (620 km) route from 6 1/2 hours to only 2 1/2 hours.
In Italy, new lines linking Rome to Naples, Milan to Bologna, and Bologna to Florence, are set to open between 2004 and 2006. Within five years, track improvements on the British side of the English Channel tunnel will shave 40 more minutes off the current three-hour Paris-London trip aboard Eurostar.
YANKEE LAGGARD. The U.S., however, is barely out of the blocks in this race. Amtrak's Acela Express, which began service in late 2000 between Washington and Boston, has been plagued with problems. Service was disrupted this summer after cracks were discovered in shock-absorber brackets on some Acela trains, built by a consortium led by Canada's Bombardier. Amtrak hasn't yet restored full service between New York and Washington.
Even when running smoothly, the Acela has a top speed of only 150 miles per hour, and on much of its route it doesn't go much above 100 miles per hour. That's because it runs on ordinary tracks shared by other trains, whereas most of Europe's superfast trains run on specially constructed tracks reserved exclusively for them.
The Continent's lead in rail travel comes at a high price to taxpayers. Installing high-speed track costs an average $30 million to $40 million per kilometer, and the figure can run as high as $100 million in difficult terrain.
MIGHTY SUBSIDIES. In Europe, governments foot the entire bill. After the tracks are built, railways such as Germany's Deutsche Bahn and France's SNCF are expected to cover the operating costs with passenger fares. But government subsidies for the tracks alone come to more than $12 billion a year, about 12 times the annual appropriation that Amtrak gets from the U.S. government for all of its operations.
Train enthusiasts point out that good reasons exist to subsidize high-speed rail. The trains are electric, so they don't pollute. They help ease highway congestion, reducing the need to build roads and other infrastructure. And Europe's fast trains have a better safety record than ordinary trains -- which in turn are safer than either planes or cars. In 21 years, France's TGV has never had a fatal accident. With advantages like that, it's no surprise that Europe's high-speed trains are going...well, full-speed ahead.
Making TracksHere are the major European high-speed rail projects scheduled for completion in the next five years:
Spain: Madrid to Barcelona, first segment opens late this year, completion 2004. Cordoba to Malaga, 2006. Madrid to Valencia, 2007
Italy: Rome to Naples, 2004. Milan to Bologna and Florence to Bologna, 2006
Benelux: Amsterdam to Antwerp, Belgium, 2005
France: Paris to Strasbourg, 2007
Britain: Completion of track improvements on cross-Channel Eurostar line, 2007
Data: International Union of Railways By Carol Matlack in Paris, with reporting from Karim Djemai