When the Olympic Games came to Tokyo in 1964, something changed the world of transportation and travel forever. The Japanese call it Shinkansen, but throughout the world it was known as “the bullet train.”
With concerns over population density combined with the high cost of gasoline, countries like France and Germany quickly began developing high-speed rail services of their own. Today, France is the leader in conventional rail technology, establishing a whopping world record land speed of 357.2 miles per hour in April 2007.
Commercial high-speed trains in many countries reach scheduled speeds of 186 mph, while some of France’s TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse) travel at 200 mph. In larger European countries, it was feasible to develop special dedicated tracks that are straighter to allow for higher rates of speed.
Countries with less revenue or which are not large enough to support extensive lengths of dedicated track, ingeniously developed the concept of tilting trains. Tilt trains cannot travel at the super speeds of their faster cousins, but they have the advantage of using existing rail lines.
Technological advances in high-speed rail travel made the dream of connecting the United Kingdom with continental Europe through the English Channel a reality. Today, Eurostar trains make day trips between England and France or Belgium a reality for holiday travelers and business people. Trains travel between London and Paris in 2 hours 15 minutes and to/from London and Brussels in just under 2 hours.
Private companies have also gotten into the high-speed rail marketplace. Known as “the Red Train,” Thalys unites the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) with Paris.
Though a country like Switzerland has no need for high-speed rail of its own, it has negotiated alliances with France, Germany and Italy to utilize rapid train services between these bordering countries.
High-speed trains in Europe have reinvented travel on the continent, and the variety of rail passes that are available today come with bonuses that add even greater value to a particular pass. But rail passes are a subject for another day.
For now, consider using Europe’s fabulous modern “bullet trains.” It’s just a matter of basic training.
Details on high-speed rail travel in Europe: www.raileurope.com.
Bob Taylor of Charlotte leads group tours and organized the Magellan Club. Read his “Travel Better With Bob Taylor” blog at charlotteobserver.com/travel.
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