Page last updated at 20:59 GMT, Friday, 29 October 2010 21:59 UK

The high-speed train challenge to low cost airlines

By Rajan Datar
Presenter, Fast Track

A Chinese high-speed train leaves the station in Shanghai
China is in negotiations to draw together and open up the whole of Central, East and South East Asia by rail

Could a global network of well-developed high-speed trains mean many travellers choose rail journeys over planes?

The high-speed train link from London in the UK to the rest of the continent has up until now been monopolised by Eurostar. But from 2013 it is going to be shared with another train service - Germany's Deutsche Bahn.

New routes to Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Cologne in four hours or so are promised and London and Continental Railways, the owners of the Channel Tunnel, are playing up the positives.

"The expanding high-speed rail network across Europe is a hugely exciting prospect and is going to redefine travel now as we move forward," explained director of communications Ben Ruse.

"Already high-speed rail in Europe has made a huge impact. Lines are opening all over the place, between Madrid and Barcelona, in Holland, in Belgium, in Germany and in France."

With mobile phone and internet reception and shorter waiting times in security, business travellers can find trains more conducive to productivity.

Paris to Brussels now takes only an hour by high-speed train - Air France has effectively ceased to compete on that route
Mark Smith, Seat 61


But whilst the issue of interoperable trains in Europe, able to travel from one line and one country to another without encountering problems with gauges, has been dealt with, expansion of long-haul presents a new set of obstacles.

Old national rivalries are resurfacing. French, German and British railway operators and industrial groups look set to be locked in a long battle over who supplies new stock for the Channel Tunnel routes in the future.

According to Mark Smith, of train travel website Seat 61, this disharmony within Europe will affect the customer too.

"What we are seeing is a fragmentation of the train services and the booking arrangements and it is becoming quite difficult to book a journey that involves two or three operators and two or three different trains."

So is this a challenge to the low-cost airlines and smaller airports that have seen a boom in business over the last couple of decades? Mr Smith believes it is.

Eurostar passengers pass an ICE high speed train operated by Deutsche Bahn at St Pancas International station, London
Deutsche Bahn wants to expand its network elsewhere in Europe

"Paris to Brussels now takes only an hour by high-speed train - Air France has effectively ceased to compete on that route.

"We have seen rail, with a new high-speed Madrid-Barcelona train taking just two hours and 40 minutes, turn things around almost overnight. The air market share went down from 80-something per cent to 40-something per cent."

Second thoughts

California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in Japan investigating how California - the world's 10th biggest economy - can introduce environmentally friendly high-speed trains.

For Mr Smith, this is a significant move which builds on existing rail services.

"Rail actually has a serious market share on the New York-Boston and New York-Washington DC routes but elsewhere in the States they rely on road and air.

If you can take a railway from one end of Africa to the other then that changes everything
Chris Cleverly, Made in Africa

"They are now beginning to realise that they too need to get in on the high-speed rail act."

But tighter economic conditions are causing many in the US to have second thoughts.

Meanwhile it seems many of the world's other major players are getting out their brand new train sets.

For some time now China has been developing high-speed rail infrastructure both within its own country and in other parts of the world too.

After reaching 262 mph, officials in Shanghai this week announced they had broken the world record for the fastest scheduled train.

Ambitious plans to link Europe with Beijing cannot be dismissed as pie in the sky.

Game changer

China's recent record on completing huge infrastructure projects in rapid time is impressive and now it is making serious inroads into Africa.

Another consortium has also got the green light on that continent - in spite of resistance from the road haulage industry in West Africa and the little matter of a rather big desert called the Sahara.

Woman with laptop on a train
Will business travellers be won over by the comfort of high-speed trains?

Made in Africa is a collaboration between the Ghanaian government and a team fronted by designer Ozwald Boateng.

CEO of Made in Africa Chris Cleverly believes Chinese involvement will prove a game changer, opening up the world to long-haul, long-distance high-speed rail.

"If you can take a railway from one end [of Africa] to the other then that changes everything. The railway from Libya to Accra [Ghana] is going to take 22 hours - that is an incredible, incredible journey.

"It is going to go through terrain that nobody has ever seen before. In terms of experience for a passenger who is not an African, it is extraordinary. For a passenger who is African, who can suddenly visit people in different countries without flying to London before they come back into Africa again, it is extraordinary."

For centuries now the romance of train travel has inspired countless films, books and diaries, from the luxurious Orient Express which ran from Paris to Istanbul and the old steam trains in India, to the Whistler on the west coast of Canada.

Now it looks like high-speed long-haul rail promises to open up new adventures - at a 21st century pace.

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