Europe's rail networks today are a study in contrasts. East differs from West, shiny new high-speed trains differ from traditional rail. But the one thing they all share is vast infusions of capital, both government and private, in what many are heralding as a new rail era in Europe.
The contrast is especially striking for travelers who spend time on the trains of Western European countries, then jump out east, beyond Vienna, where they are likely to encounter an aging legacy network of starkly contrasting efficiency and comfort.
But while the differences between Western and Eastern Europe remain huge, railroad modernization efforts, financed by governments and private banks, are bringing noticeable improvements to Eastern European countries, which appear ready, able and eager to proceed with modernization.
More than 75% of the 5 billion euro ($7.3 billion) budget for the European Union's Trans-European Transport Network, for example, is devoted to rail, with much of that money heading to Eastern European countries.
Yet the bulk of rail-focused excitement among riders and the media alike is being fueled by Western Europe's rapidly developing high-speed rail network.
Four new high-speed lines were opened last year, and, in each instance, operators claimed to have reclaimed significant market share from airlines after reporting surging passenger numbers.
Consider the new Brussels-Amsterdam high-speed line, set to open late in 2008. Upon completion, travel times will be reduced by a little more than a third, from just under three hours to one hour, 44 minutes.
Combine that with the high-speed Eurostar and it's now possible to travel from London to Amsterdam in roughly four hours. Significantly, that is well under the four-hour, 30-minute point at which trains typically achieve 50% market share when competing with air.
So, what do all these improvements mean for today's air travelers, and how soon might we see a competitive trans-European high-speed rail network?
Railteam -- the next great alliance
The quick answer is: not until 2009, when a marketing alliance of seven high-speed train operators goes live with an online reservations system for booking international train fares. The alliance, known as Railteam, includes Eurostar, France's SNCF and Germany's Deutsche Bahn as well as Austrian, Belgian, Dutch and Swiss operators.
Travelers will be able to journey to more than 100 destinations on one ticket, including both high-speed and standard rail, as fares and through ticketing for multileg itineraries are combined into a single distribution platform.
Pricing should also be more competitive when fare information becomes readily available to passengers for direct comparison on a single Web site, said Frank Bernard, head of European business for SNCF and a Railteam operations supervisor.
At present, London to Paris on Eurostar starts at 59 euros ($115), with a continuing journey from Paris to Nice via TGV for as low as 19 euros ($37). SNCF is credited with a yield management curve program that offers a wide-ranging pricing structure, while Eurostar prices are competitive but suffer from heavy Channel Tunnel taxes.
Such disparities are common to the high-speed network. Still, the alliance will not create specific fares, Bernard said, and rail operators will remain state-owned and thus less open to direct competition.
More enlightened commercial attitudes have clearly gripped the industry, however, and TGV Est stands out as perhaps the most significant cross-border alliance to date.
Establishing TGV Est took 15 years of negotiations between rivals SNCF and Deutsche Bahn, the Continent's most dominant rail companies.
Opened in March 2007, the 185-mile, dedicated high-speed line drastically cuts travel times between Paris and more than a dozen cities in Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland and northeast France.
French TGVs now travel deep into the heart of Germany, and for the first time German ICEs are entering France, arriving in Paris at least five times daily.
Until the line opened, high-speed joint ventures such as Eurostar and Thalys were mainly north-south oriented, Bernard said.
"TGV Est connects Western and Eastern Europe, from Paris to Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich," he said. "Thus, one day to Vienna and beyond."
For clues as to if and when that day might come, one can look to Spain, which only recently caught up to the rest of Western Europe thanks to significant government investment in new high-speed lines known as AVE services (Alta Velocidad Espanola).
Spain's effort was greatly aided by European Union integration, and there is reason to believe that a similar investment effort could bear fruit in the newly admitted EU countries of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe.
In just 15 years, Spain's high-speed network has grown to the point where travelers departing from Madrid will soon be able to reach all provincial cities in less than four hours.
Europe's borders are not disappearing, but lines being planned and built might make it seem like they are. A high-speed line connecting Madrid and Lisbon is already under construction, and by 2020 a link from Barcelona through the Pyrenees to France should be in place.
It is a "certainty" that within 15 years travelers will be able to grab a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Madrid via Paris; Lyon, France; and Barcelona, Spain, predicted Guillaume Pepy, the chairman of Eurostar and CEO of SNCF.
But the looming question for operators is this: What passenger wants to spend a minimum of 10 hours on a train when a plane is much faster and, perhaps, much cheaper?
Only overnight journeys would stand a chance, but Bernard said high-speed operators have been unable to deliver sleeping accommodations owing to maintenance requirements and the high cost of sleeper compartments.
"When we are at five to six hours, we are challenging airline companies," Bernard said. "Over six hours, for the moment, it's very, very difficult" to compete.
Ana Dias e Seixes, an executive with Eurail, which offers unlimited country-, regional- and continentwide travel on Eurail Passes, said that overseas travelers were wary of high-speed rail.
"They're coming to Europe for a romantic, dreamlike experience, and they want to enjoy the scenery," Dias e Seixes said, alluding to recently conducted market research in Japan and North America. " 'We don't need 200 km (about 124 mph),' they said to us, and that was an eye-opener."
Dias e Seixes was also quick to point out that Railteam is a high-speed alliance and, therefore, does not cover the vast bulk of existing tracks and stations.
Moreover, there is no Goldpass type of product that includes high-speed and traditional rail, reflecting both the sometimes pricier reality of high-speed travel and the different pathways along which these two markets are now developing.
Traveling by Eurail pass, fast transit often isn't the main objective. This is especially true when passing through portions of Europe that evoke a slower, more bucolic lifestyle.
For example, consider a recent trip to the Balkans via a circuitous route from Croatia to Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.
Emerging from years of war and neglect, these countries of the former Yugoslav Republic and Soviet bloc epitomize the difficult challenge of realizing a trans-European, high-speed rail network.
Majestic old coaches often seemed shabbily patched together, their door handles broken, cushions torn, window tracks rusted. And thanks to centuries of enmity and decades of ignorance, border crossings remain a considerable obstacle.
From Bulgaria to Romania, for example, the long pause in the border town of Giurgiu drags out the travel time by more than an hour.
But changes are on the horizon. A great deal of money is pouring into Romania and Bulgaria, both members of the EU since January 2007. Both trumpet impressive modernization plans touching on everything from new rolling stock and ticketing systems to new, faster track and catering services.
Even the border crossing at Giurgiu will be shortened to 20 minutes once EU integration timetables take effect, said Valicu Adrian, director of marketing for Romanian railways company CFR Calatori.
"My intention is to get people off the road and onto the train," Adrian said as he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation. "It's safer, it's better, and I can say, up to now, it's faster."
But that claim rests largely on Romania's limited and poorly maintained road network, and it deflects attention from a top rail speed of 120 km (about 75 mph). Certain mainlines will soon approach speeds between 160 km (almost 100 mph) and 200 km, Adrian said.
To remain competitive, improvements to the rail network will be needed, even as cheaper bus service begins to give Romanian rail a significant competitive challenge, Adrian said.
Still, with the EU dangling a nearly ¬5.3 billion euro budget as part of its Trans-European Transport Network project, there's good reason to believe that rail executives will get the needed money to follow through on their PowerPoint promises.
To be sure, it will be a long time before you can catch a German ICE to Bucharest or Sofia. But in the meantime, rail service only seems to be getting better.