With little fanfare, last weekend the first passenger trains ran along the final stretch of the LGV-Est high-speed line between Paris and the Alsace. Its completion marks the end of more than a decade-long project to upgrade the track that has halved travel time between Paris and Strasbourg, brought the principal cities of eastern France within easier reach of the capital, and improved links to Luxembourg, Germany, and Switzerland.
The final phase of the line opened with scant ceremony. After all, it is just one piece of France’s great project to expand the reach of its iconic TGV to its furthermost corners.
A few months before, Spain’s Prime Minister opened the high-speed line between Valladolid and León, cutting the fastest Madrid – León journey time by 44 minutes and marking the inauguration of another link in Spain's growing high-speed rail network. And meanwhile in Switzerland, engineers have just finished the Gotthard Base: a rail tunnel through right through the central Alps.
Supported by EU and national subsidies, Europe has added more than 6,000km of high-speed track since 1990 and financed substantial investment in infrastructure. Though delivered in parts, this investment in fast trains across Europe reveals an ambitious strategy, one that puts rail firmly on the map for future generations of travellers.
The benefits for passengers are many: from faster journeys, new links and more convenient connections, to quieter, comfortable and more efficient trains. And looking at the bigger the picture, it’s good news for the environment, too - where high-speed rail thrives, low cost airlines falter meaning cleaner, greener travel for those on the trains and those living under flight paths.
Where high-speed rail thrives, low cost airlines falter meaning cleaner, greener travel for those on the trains and those living under flight paths.
Eurostar is perhaps the best example. Since launching in 1994, it has doubled the size of the market of travellers between Paris and London, and wrestled some 80% of the market share from short-haul airlines, some of which have simply stopped flying the route. And there are others too - Thalys between Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, TGV between Paris and Lyon, Frecciarossa between Milan and Rome, AVE between Madrid and Barcelona - all them dominate journeys where flying was once the obvious choice.
This quiet revolution of high-speed trains in western Europe has transformed passenger rail, but it is not without its casualties. The introduction of yield-managed pricing and supplements for high-speed trains have all but killed rail passes. Once a rite of passage for backpackers, travelling with a pass seldom represents good value where high-speed trains are concerned, with point-to-point tickets bought even a few weeks ahead offering better discounts and deals.
Though it’s still possible to board an ancient loco with a rail pass in Eastern Europe to trundle through the countryside at jogging pace (highly recommended, for what it’s worth), elsewhere those journeys now only exist in the memories of interrailers gone by.
Perhaps the most significant loss is the existential threat that high-speed rail poses to the once powerful fleet of sleeper trains in Europe.
But perhaps the most significant loss is the existential threat that high-speed rail poses to the once powerful fleet of sleeper trains in Europe. Though withdrawn in 2013, Loco2 still fields questions about the Elipsos night train from Paris to Barcelona and Madrid, while others mourn the loss of the City Night Line between Paris and Berlin.
With the news that French government intends to axe all but three of its night trains by the end of 2016, it feels like the end of the line for Europe's iconic sleeper trains. Operators cite hefty taxes and the rise of budget airlines, but those in the industry point to lack of investment and a failure to deliver comfort, reliability and innovation in ticketing.
But perhaps overall this points to a continued shift in the landscape of rail: a recognition that fans of Europe’s night trains and nostalgia cannot sustain them alone, and that changes to travel habits can’t be ignored. In order for rail to compete with airlines, it must pick its battles, and it seems most likely to win on journeys of 500km or less, where fast trains between big cities are quicker and less polluting than other forms of transport. But even here, rail operators must stay nimble to respond to threats from airlines, liberalised coach services and new competitors emerging from the sharing economy.
Though few innovations in rail will be quite as exciting as when engineers built an underwater tunnel, the Gotthard Base is significant and there are opportunities elsewhere too. The long-awaited direct train from London to Amsterdam is due to launch passenger services in late 2017 (assuming negotiations with UKBA aren’t derailed by Brexit). Meanwhile, France continues its expansion of the LGV Sud Europe Atlantique from Paris to Bordeaux, due July 2017.
For Britons, as many things in Europe are set to change, its reassuring to know that in rail at least we’re more connected than ever.
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