This year, I have made a travel commitment to myself: when and wherever possible I will aim to take the train rather than the plane to get from A to B in Europe.
It’s not that I don’t like flying. Quite the contrary. There’s something special about the whole experience. The buzz at the airport, the thrill of taking off, the views from the plane… And let’s be honest: flying is quite often the cheapest and most convenient option, especially now that low-cost carriers fly to almost every corner of Europe. A spontaneous city trip to Madrid, a mid-week in Italy, or a party weekend in Amsterdam – thanks to the likes of Ryanair and EasyJet, travelling across Europe has never been easier.
However, after taking a record number of flights last year (at some point I was on a plane three times a week) I started to wonder: if everyone did this, we would destroy our planet. So why should I allow myself to fly this much, especially when often there are more sustainable alternatives out there? I hence promised myself that for any work or leisure trips in 2019, I would consider all alternative travel options before booking a flight.
Luckily, there is a game changer in town: the high-speed train. With increasing competition and more and more connections bringing you from city centre to city centre, the train is no longer a mere alternative to flying, but in many instances the first, most logical choice to travel in Europe. Door-to-door it’s often faster, cheaper and more convenient than the plane. And what’s more, you’ll get to travel through some of Europe’s grandest and most beautiful railway stations. So, here are 12 European high-speed rail connections that have revolutionised the way we travel across the continent:
London – Paris, Brussels & Amsterdam
I have long been a massive fan of Eurostar. Ever since it introduced its superfast shuttle train linking London to Paris and Brussels in the 1990s, it has changed Europeans’ idea of international train travel. It has now overtaken the plane as the most popular means of travel between these capital cities. And let’s face it: why go through the hassle of travelling between two suburban airports when you can catch a train from London St. Pancras to central Paris and Brussels in just over 2 hours? And from there the rest of western Europe lies at your feet. Conveniently, Eurostar sells combination tickets that allow you to jump on any connecting domestic train from Brussels-Midi. This is why, for me, the Eurostar is my preferred option whenever I travel from London to visit family in Maastricht, which lies just across the border in the Netherlands. And with a new direct route from London to Amsterdam (via Rotterdam), which will take you to the Dutch capital in 3 hours and 45 minutes, Eurostar is bound to impact the way we travel to this part of Europe even more.
Amsterdam – Paris
From Amsterdam straight to Paris by train? It’s possible. What’s more, it’s faster, more convenient and of course more environmentally friendly than flying! The Thalys is the international high-speed train that takes you in no-time from Amsterdam Centraal to Brussels-Midi and Paris Gare du Nord, with stops at Schiphol Airport, Rotterdam and Antwerp. Seamlessly sliding through 3 countries with a top speed of 300 kilometres per hour, the total duration of the journey is around 3 hours and 20 minutes. And with up to 20 trains a day you’ll have plenty of flexibility too!
Paris – southern France
The French have been at the forefront of high-speed rail for decades, so it should come as no surprise that the country has an incredible network of high-speed lines. The Train à Grand Vitesse, or simply TGV, now reaches almost every corner of France’s hexagon. From Paris you’ll be able to catch a direct train to cities such as Strasbourg in the east and Bordeaux in the south-west. Fancy a trip to the Provence? Or a dive in the Mediterranean Sea in Marseille? No need to take the plane, because at a speed of 320 kilometres per hour the TGV brings you there in as little 3 and a half hours. And recently the French railways launched a low-cost high-speed rail scheme called OuiGo, making train journeys even more affordable and attractive. C’est genial!
Frankfurt – Amsterdam
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn has made great efforts in cutting down travel times between German cities and beyond. And although the rail company’s reputation of pünktlichkeit, or punctuality, has taken a hit in recent years because of chronic delays there is no denying that its Inter City Express (ICE) trains are among the best out there. They’re modern, comfortable and run regularly and fast (up to 300 kilometres per hour). The ICE connects most major German cities and also runs to Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland. The Frankfurt-Amsterdam service is one of its key international routes and takes you from city centre to city centre in 3 hours and 55 minutes.
Brussels – Cologne
Both the Thalys and ICE operate services between Belgium and Germany. From Brussels there is a direct train connection to Cologne and Frankfurt. It takes as little as 1 hour and 47 minutes to travel from Brussels to Cologne and just under 3 hours to complete the journey to Frankfurt. You can also hop-on or off in the cities of Liège (which has a futuristic new train station) and Aachen.
Berlin – Munich
After more than 20 years of planning and construction, the wait is finally over: since end-2017 Berlin and Munich are connected by a high-speed rail line, decreasing the travel time between the cities with nearly 2 hours. Each way, three daily ICE Sprinter trains run between Berlin and Munich in 3 hours and 55 minutes, with stops in Leipzig, Erfurt and Nuremberg. In addition, there is a standard ICE service between the cities that departs hourly and makes more stops, with a total travel time of 4 and a half hours.
Munich – Vienna
From Munich you can hop on a train to Vienna. At 250 kilometres an hour, the RailJet service to Austria’s capital might not be as fast as some of the others on this list, but the trains from Austrian operator ÖBB are modern, smart-looking and run up to 4 times a day. And what’s better than spending the 4-hour journey looking outside the window admiring the dreamy alpine landscapes?
Barcelona – Madrid
Until 2008 the fastest way to travel between Barcelona and Madrid was by plane. However, that’s history since Spain’s highspeed rail network AVE (Alta Velocidad Española) launched that year. With non-stop trains travelling at a speed of 350 kilometres per hour, the two cities are now only a 2-and-a-half-hour train journey away from each other. So, if you’re planning to travel from the Catalan capital to the national one or vice versa, there’s no longer an excuse to fly!
Madrid – Seville
With the expansion of the high-speed rail network in Spain, Madrid’s wonderful Atocha station has become a hub for long distance trains to and from all parts of the country. From here, you can jump on a fast train not just to Barcelona, but also to Spain’s north or south. A trip to Seville, the passionate capital of the southern region of Andalusia (home of tapas and flamenco) now only takes 2 hours and 30 minutes on the AVE. Planned liberalisation will see low-cost competitors operating on the Spanish high-speed network from 2020 onwards. A train trip through Spain will never have been more enticing!
Venice – Florence, Rome & Naples
In the quest for quicker railway connections the Italians have not sat still either. In fact, Italy was the first country in the world where a private operator started competing with a state-owned railway company on a high-speed network. As a result, travel times as well as ticket fares have been slashed. When travelling up or down the country in high speed (and style) you have the choice between Trenitalia’s Freccia service or the sleek trains from Italo. Both run routes along some of Italy’s most famous cities, with frequent services and top speeds of 300 kilometres per hour. The train journey from Venice to Florence, for instance, takes less than 2 hours and from Florence to Rome it’s another hour and 25 minutes. But the fun doesn’t end there. The high-speed route continues all the way down to Naples, which can be reached in 1 hour and 10 minutes from Rome. The final stop on the service is Salerno, which is the gateway to the Cilento region. So, for a whirlwind tour of classical Italy, the train is your new BFF!
Turin & Milan – Bologna
Both Trenitalia and Italo also operate high-speed services from Turin and Milan. From there you can travel in respectively 2.5 hours and 1 hour to Bologna, where the service connects to trains coming from Venice and continues further south. Breakfast in Turin, lunch in Milan and dinner in Bologna? Thanks to the high-speed train it’s possible!
Zurich – Milan
Train journeys across the Alps are not just incredibly scenic, but also comfortable and fast. The EuroCity bullet train, jointly operated by Trenitalia and Switzerland’s SBB, runs every 2 hours and brings you in 3 hours and 25 minutes from the heart of Zurich to central Milan. With a board bistro and breath-taking views en route, you wouldn’t want to travel any other way!
For more details on any of the above routes check out the incredibly useful train blog of The Man in Seat 61 – his website has all the information you need and more about travelling by train in Europe. Other useful sites are GoEuro (a comparison website for trains, busses and flights) and Loco2.com.
So, will you join me in making a commitment to taking the train, rather than the plane, more often in 2019?