Brian Richards reports
Rail operators in the UK and Europe are making train journeys a more attractive option with the introduction of faster trains and new on-board services.
Since the opening of Belgium's high-speed rail link from the French border to Brussels 18 months ago, Eurostar passengers have enjoyed quicker journey times from London to the heart of Europe.
The new link cut the London-Brussels journey time by 30mins, putting the Belgian capital 2hr 40min from London. Ashford to Aachen in Germany now takes under 4hrs from the UK, and Cologne is just 5hrs 30min away.
Germany is reducing times even further, with investment in new-generation Inter City Express 3 trains that will connect Cologne and Frankfurt in 58mins from 2002.
German Rail's UK and Ireland director Rudolf Richter said: "The ICE 3 will feed Hanover from Cologne for next year's big event, Expo 2000."
This month, the new Metropolitan train started operating between Cologne and Hamburg, with first-class accommodation in wood-panelled carriages targeting the business market. Other German investment has been in ICE conferencing. First-class conference compartments have been introduced - complete with fax, telephones and ports for laptops.
At the same time, France is developing its new generation TGV train.
Upgraded seating and airline quality service are promised within the next two years. Passengers can change from Eurostar on to the TGV network at Lille for connections to all parts of France, including Brittany, Bordeaux and the south.
Rail Europe communications manager Peter Mills said:"As trains get faster they are competing with aircraft over greater distances. For journeys up to 3hrs, rail is a strong competitor.
"Paris to Lyon, France's first high-speed TGV route, is an example. Ten times more people now travel by rail than fly between the two cities."
In the UK, Virgin Trains and ScotRail are spending heavily on new trains and upgrading existing stock. Virgin is to take delivery of tilting trains, capable of 140mph.
These will replace its entire west coast fleet from London to the Midlands, north Wales, the northwest and Scotland.
The £1.25bn deal is for 53 trains, due for delivery from 2001. They will have enhanced catering, a retail shop and optional in-seat multi-channel entertainment system.
ScotRail's £200m package includes 64 new trains and a £7m upgrade of the Caledonian Sleepers operating from London to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.
Meanwhile, Eurostar figures continue their upward curve. Revenue was up 6% to £198.3m and passenger volume up 1% to 3.5m for the first half of 1999.
Special offers this summer include two-for-one deals from London to Amsterdam at £64.50 per person and Brussels at £59 and a £49 weekday return to Paris and Brussels.
Through tickets use the Thalys fast service from Paris. It goes north to Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and Dusseldorf.
More than 6,500 agents now earn a maximum 9% commission by using Eurostar's Elgar distribution system - agency sales now account for 75% of Eurostar bookings.
With work on the Channel Tunnel rail link through Kent now in progress, a Government inquiry later this year will examine the viability of operating Eurostar from the UK regions.
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