If you’re doing business in Europe, with meetings in London one day and Paris the next, there are two options.
You could take a 45-minute taxi ride from the hotel to Heathrow airport, check in the requisite two hours before departure, board the plane for the 80-minute flight, disembark, collect your luggage, then jump into another taxi for the 35-minute drive to central Paris. That’s at least four hours and 40 minutes of mucking around.
Or you could head down to St Pancras International, the Eurostar railway station in the centre of London, and board a train knowing it will deliver you to Gare du Nord station in the heart of Paris just two hours and 15 minutes later.
Deciding whether the fast train beats flying is easy. In the words of Greg McCallum, national sales and marketing manager of the online international rail travel wholesaler Rail Plus (www.railplus.com.au): “It’s a no-brainer.”
Launched in 1994, the high-speed Eurostar service now claims an 80 per cent market share of the London-Paris route. Flying and travel by ferry make up the rest.
Similar statistics are reported for other high-speed services in Europe. The French TGV between Paris and Lyon, for example, currently claims more than a 70 per cent share of travel on the route. Spain’s AVE reports a market share of 52 per cent of the Madrid to Seville traffic, with flying hanging on to just 13 per cent of the route.
In Australia you don’t think twice about booking a flight between capital cities. Greg McCallum, Rail Plus
The short travel times offered by trains capable of scooting along the tracks at more than 300km/h are clearly a selling point for the high-speed networks, but fast-rail providers have the business sector in their sights and are keen to communicate that they offer more than speed.
For one, they promise punctuality. “That’s tough for aviation, because they have to deal with the weather a lot more,” McCallum says. “Rail doesn’t tend to have those issues.”
Fast-rail providers also promote the speed and efficiency of quick and easy check-ins, routes that connect city centres rather than remote ports or airports and ready access to electronic devices and wi-fi for the entire journey. Then there’s the allure of elegant dining cars, restaurant-quality menus and carriage interiors designed by the likes of Christian Lacroix for TGV and Phillipe Starck for Eurostar.
Despite all this, professionals from Australia and elsewhere who travel to Europe on business still skip across the continent by air. That’s partly because travel management companies that service business travellers are what McCallum calls “air-centric”.
“And that’s understandable, because in Australia you don’t think twice about booking a flight between capital cities.”
One reason for that is because, until very recently, the backroom booking processes for international train travel were stalled by 20th century technology.
“Up to five years ago, you had to phone or email us to make a booking,” McCallum says. “The front product was still magnificent, but the booking process was pretty ordinary.”
The rail industry was revolutionised by the installation of a universal booking system equivalent to those used by international airlines. In July last year e-ticketing systems were introduced. According to McCallum, these developments make rail travel still more attractive on intra-European trips.
“With rail, if you’re going between London and Paris and you make a booking online, you’ll get an e-ticket with a designated seat number and carriage number. Business class travellers have fast check-in procedures, so literally you can arrive just as the train is about to leave and get rushed on board.”
Asia leads the way
Japan’s Bullet Train (or Shinkansen) was the first high-speed passenger service in the world. Starting in 1964, it now operates over 2400km of track.
High-speed rail services now also run in Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and eastern China.
Fastest of them all is the Shanghai Maglev, opened in 2004 as a demonstration line to test the magnetic levitation technology that effectively leaves only the force of air drag to slow it down.
The Shanghai Maglev travels the 30km between Pudong International Airport and Shanghai’s Longyang Road Metro station in about seven minutes at an average speed of 266km/h and a peak speed of 431km/h.
In test runs, maglev trains around the world have achieved speeds in excess of 500km/h.
Rapid routes to Europe’s sights
The Trains a Grande Vitesse (TGV) network connects cities in France, Italy, Belgium,
Switzerland and Germany. The name translates simply as “high-speed trains” and the TGV travels up to 320km/h.
Business bonus: If travelling TGV Pro class, a taxi can be booked and waiting at the station.
Sample trip: Paris to Brussels is about 260km and takes 74 minutes. The distance between Sydney and Canberra is similar, but takes more than four hours.
Eurostar offers up to 20 services a day between London and Paris, and 10 trips daily between London and Brussels. Home base is London’s St Pancras International.
Business bonus: A Business Premier passenger on Eurostar can plug electronic devices into a power socket and have drinks and meals delivered to the seat. The menu was created by Alain Roux of Britain’s celebrated Waterside Inn.
Sample trip: Eurostar zooms from London to Paris at speeds of up to 300km/h in two hours and 15 minutes.
Italy’s high-speed service is known as Frecciarossa (red train), for its dashing red and silver livery. It zips between Rome, Milan, Florence, Turin, Bologna and Naples.
Business bonus: Travel first class and receive a drink on boarding, plus a pre-booked three-course meal served at the seat. The wi-fi service is still in experimental phase and costs a small fee.
Sample trip: The popular Rome-Naples route takes 70 minutes to travel about 180km.
The InterCityExpress (ICE) trains whizz along at up to 320km/h. The network connects German cities such as Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich and extends into Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Business bonus: There’s no dedicated business class service, but first class facilities include power sockets and in-seat video. Speak to the crew to have a taxi waiting at the station.
Sample trip: The 250km trip from Berlin to Hamburg takes about an hour and a half much shorter than the 4½-hour Sydney-Canberra trip, which is about the same length.
High-speed train travel in Spain is provided by the AVE (Alta Velocidad Espanola) network.
Business bonus: Business travellers can use power sockets. Club Class passengers also have access to a conference room.
Sample trip: The 500km-odd between Madrid and Seville in the south is covered in just two hours and 20 minutes and if the train is more than five minutes late, you get your money back.