Touring Europe at 200 Miles an Hour
Travel by High-Speed Rail
Catches On as an Alternative
To the Hassles of Flying
By DARREN EVERSON
March 12, 2008; Page D1
To get to Europe, you still have to take a plane. But to get around, some savvy travelers are finding a much smoother -- and sometimes quicker -- ride on the train.
High-speed rail operators in Europe are ambitiously adding routes and cutting travel times, looking to snatch customers from the short-haul airline market. They are also adding perks, such as DVD and movie rentals and free newspapers. Plush high-speed trains are luring customers weary of the bare-bones service offered on the many discount airlines that have proliferated throughout Europe: Eurostar Group Ltd. trains (which run in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium) have 33 inches of leg room in coach, for example. Discount airline Ryanair has 30 inches of leg room -- and the seats don't recline.
Spain, which is at the forefront of the rail boom, got high-speed service connecting Madrid and Barcelona last month. The journey was slashed by two hours: Now it takes just two hours, 35 minutes. Switzerland in January saw the opening of a $3.5 billion, 22-mile tunnel that passes through the Alps, cutting travel time by 45 to 75 minutes within the country and between Switzerland and Italy.
In November, Eurostar reduced the travel time by 20 minutes on its popular London-to-Brussels and London-to-Paris routes. As of late January, there were more than 2,600 miles of high-speed lines under construction in Europe, including some 1,400 miles in Spain alone, plus an additional 5,300 miles planned, according to the International Union of Railways.
Consumers are flocking to the comfortable, speedy trains -- while growth is slowing in parts of the airline industry. Eurostar reported a 15% rise in ticket sales for 2007, with much of the increase occurring after the London enhancements. Meanwhile, airport passenger-traffic growth has fallen to 2% in Britain for the past two years, according to the country's Civil Aviation Authority. Prior to that, traffic had been growing 6% a year since the 1970s.
While the nearly 200-mph trains are of particular use to long-distance commuters and other European-based consumers, U.S. travelers also can take advantage, whether they want to visit multiple stops across the Continent or just avoid the hassle of taking connecting flights.
Frank Giaccio, a 60-year-old investment analyst from King of Prussia, Pa., did the latter during a recent trip to Italy. He needed to get to San Giovanni Valdarno, a little town a half-hour south of Florence, where he planned to spend two weeks studying Italian. He didn't want to fly to Florence, which would have required connecting from Milan and, in his opinion, increased the odds of his luggage getting lost. And he definitely didn't want to rent a car and take his chances reading road signs. "I was studying Italian very unsuccessfully," he says.
So he took the trains. A high-speed one got him from Milan to Florence in under three hours, and a local one covered the remaining distance to San Giovanni Valdarno. The train from Milan made just a brief stop or two, and he got to gaze at the rural countryside along the way. "How can you complain?" Mr. Giaccio says, although he wasn't thrilled about the euro-dollar exchange rate, which made his one-way fare the equivalent of $48.
Train travelers can also avoid airport security hassles and some of the delays that have plagued flights lately. Last year was the fourth straight year that delays increased on intra-European flights, according to the Association of European Airlines. Train stations are often more convenient: They tend to be located in city centers. Airports are often more remote, especially those where discount airlines tend to fly. For example, Barcelona International Airport is about 20 minutes from the city center, but Barcelona Girona Airport, which Ryanair flies into, is 90 kilometers (55 miles) away.
And as no-frills airlines have become increasingly prevalent in Europe, passengers are being charged for checking bags, checking in at the airport, and even for using credit cards. Rail has gone the reverse route, offering more perks. Eurostar's trains have power sockets and offer free newspapers and magazines in business and premium economy classes on-board. The TGV Med, a French high-speed train that travels from Paris to destinations near the Mediterranean coast, has DVD-player and movie rentals. SNCF, France's high-speed rail operator, is launching a youth-aimed overnight service to Biarritz and the French Riviera later this year. The service, called IDnight, will have music, dancing and an all-night bar.
Weldon Thompson, a Helsinki resident and frequent train traveler, raves about another creature comfort: an easier customs process. On a recent ride he took between Basel, Switzerland, and Frankfurt, Germany, a customs agent boarded the train during a stop to check the passengers, allowing them to avoid standing in lines, as is often the case at the airport. "I've cleared customs sitting in the dining car eating lunch," Mr. Thompson says. This has a downside, too, however. During customs checks, the whole train stops and waits until all passengers are cleared.
For now, trains are also better for those who want to stay connected while they travel. Train passengers already can use cellphones where a cell signal is available. But European airlines soon may offer voice services too; Ryanair plans to begin testing in-flight cellphone service in the second quarter of this year.
Price and route structure remain drawbacks for train travel. The low-cost airlines can be flown more cheaply on many routes, including London-to-Paris ($83 on easyJet in April, $180 on Eurostar), even though Eurostar owns two-thirds of that route's market share. Despite the 3,400 miles of high-speed lines already operating in Europe, many major cities still aren't directly connected. A one-way trip from Amsterdam to Berlin, for example, costs $205 via Rail Europe, a rail-booking agency, and takes a prohibitive six hours even though the cities are only 350 miles apart. On Transavia, a Netherlands low-cost airline, the trip takes 1 hour and 20 minutes and costs $129 -- round trip.
High-speed trains are most popular on routes that run relatively straight and cover shorter distances. Rail operators say customers have historically chosen trains for trips of three hours or less. But Guillaume Pepy, chairman of Eurostar, says travelers are now willing to take trains for longer trips. He points out that trains have a 65% market share on the Paris-to-Toulon route, which the TGV covers in just under four hours. "It's extremely comfortable, easy to use and seamless," Mr. Pepy says. "You can use the time exactly as you want: sleep, read, work on the computer. It's useful time."
Still, some in the discount-airline industry scoff at the so-called high-speed competition. "I don't think there's any concern on our part," says Peter Sherrard, head of communications at Ryanair Holdings PLC, pointing out that Ryanair's average fare for a 1½-hour flight is the equivalent of $60. "That's knocking the socks off anything the trains are offering. We're doing it faster and lower-cost."
But a growth in fees and surcharges is causing the low-cost airlines' fares to swell. Ryanair in Jan. raised its fees for checking a bag to €9 and checking in at the airport to €4, and the airline said it will keep increasing fees until it gets at least 50% of its passengers to travel with hand luggage only and use free Web check-in. Airport and government taxes also cause costs to balloon. So while the round-trip fare for a Ryanair flight from London Stansted Airport to Perpignan, France, in late March was $60 as of yesterday, the cost with taxes jumps to $132. And that doesn't include a nearly £3 (about $6) credit-card "handling fee" per flight segment.
On Eurostar, however, you can carry two bags (plus one handbag) free. Additional bags cost £12; bicycles and other oversize items are £20.
But Michael Zagurek of Merrimack, N.H., already has decided to use the high-speed trains for a trip he is considering taking to Europe later this year. The cramped seats on the discount carriers are foremost on the 6-foot computer consultant's mind. "Am I supposed to sit sideways?" he says.
Write to Darren Everson at email@example.com
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