High-Speed Rail Takes Over Continent's Tracks

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Reed Travel Features

NEW YORK -- The world's longest suspension bridge, Eurostar hotel service from London to Frankfurt, Germany and double-decker tilting trains in the Swiss Alps are among Europe's top coming attractions.

All of the above have one thing in common: speed.

Unity on the continent might be elusive, but expanding high-speed rail connections should make it easier for European Union officials to arrive on time for their meetings.

In fact, travelers in a hurry are opting for high-speed trains over airplanes at a growing rate.

Subsidized by their respective governments, Europe's trains are inexpensive to travel and often make city connections as fast as planes, when one considers airport check-in and transfer time.

A spokesman for Rail Europe said that three-hour Eurostar service between London and Paris has captured 40% of a market formerly dominated by air.

Overall, high-speed rail's market share in comparison to air is 50% to 60% for train routes that run from two to three hours.

Even though high-speed rail lines are available in only eight countries -- Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and Sweden -- European officials said the goal is to connect all EU countries by 2000.

So far, intercountry high-speed rail in France connects with only four countries -- Great Britain, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland.

The link to Spain, however, is only to Irun, a city that borders France and has no high-speed connections with the rest of the country.

The Rail Europe spokesman said the first priority is to connect the existing high-speed countries.

"The governments of France and Spain have been talking about a tunnel to link Paris and Barcelona via Montpellier [France] for years, but it seems that plan is on hold," he said.

"The French also have looked at connecting all of their high-speed rail, which would provide faster links to neighboring countries."

More connections are under way.

The following is a Top 10 list of high-speed rail developments targeted for 1997 and beyond:

1. This spring, a bridge-tunnel, Storebaelt, will connect Copenhagen, on the island province of Zealand, to Denmark's Funen province.

The 4.2-mile-long suspension bridge will be the world's longest.

Storebaelt will make it possible to travel from western Europe to Copenhagen by train and car without having to board a ferry.

The new link, in conjunction with a bridge between Sweden and Denmark, to be completed by 2000, will create the first land-only access from the west to the Scandinavian peninsula.

Storebaelt's rail line will be inaugurated in June, shortening the current, one-hour trip between Funen and Zealand to 15 minutes.

Although Storebaelt's train is not technically in the high-speed category, it is expected to run in the 110 mph range.

2. Switzerland will have its first double-decker trains in June.

The trains, running at 120 mph, will travel between St.-Gallen and Interlaken, stopping at Zurich and Bern.

3. In Spain, the AVE will make its debut between Bar-celona and Valencia this summer, saving 30 to 45 minutes on the route.

4. The ICE will run between Berlin and Hanover, Germany, starting in June, reducing the two-hour-45-minute trip to one hour and 45 minutes.

5. A Eurostar spokesman said there would be a March announcement regarding the train's entry into the CRSs, but no further details were available at press time.

Eurostar plans to operate night trains from London to Amsterdam, Netherlands, and London to Frankfurt by early 1998.

6. The double-decker TGV that was introduced between Paris and Lyon in December will be extended to Marseilles and Montpellier.

The track between Valence and Marseille will be upgraded within the next two years, shortening the journey by up to 45 minutes

7. The Thalys line from Paris to Brussels, Belgium, will extend to Cologne, Germany, in 1998. This will link French and German high-speed rail.

8. Germany will run night trains in mid-1997 from Hamburg to Munich.

9. Rail officials are looking at a high-speed link between Torino, Italy, and Lyon, France, by 2005.

10. As for high-speed rail making its way into the former Eastern Bloc countries, DERrail's Schmidt said, "It will happen, but nobody knows when."

Her picks for who would get there first were the Czech Republic, with service from Prague to Berlin; Poland, with service from Warsaw to Krakow, and a big chunk of eastern Europe, with service from Berlin to Moscow.

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