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TGV, ICE, AVE - Alphabet of Europe Fast Rail Travel

TGV High Speed France SNCF Nice Station photoJapan was the first country to come up with a practical high speed passenger train, first begun development in 1959 and starting service in 1962, nicknamed the “Bullet Train” not only for its speed, but for its round nose which rather looked like a bullet. Soon, the idea of rapid travel by rail caught on in Europe, with an already extensive rail network in common use, which could be adapted to high speed travel with various designs resulting. The French followed with the TGV, initials standing for “très grande vitesse“ or very high speed. Originally it was to be Turbine Grand Vitesse, because the proposed design was going to use a turbine engine, essentially a jet train, but by the time it came into being with the rise of fuel prices in the 1970s, it was changed to electric. All European high speed trains are now electric. After the TGV came online, next was the German ICE in 1991, “Inter City Express". Then, the Eurostar between London and Paris (see Eurostar Chunnel London to Paris) requiring a tunnel under the English channel and a dedicated rail line, adding Brussels later. The Thalys line is a separate line running directly between Paris, Brussels, Liege and Cologne, with a line to Antwerp and Amsterdam (see Thalys High Speed Red Bullet). Spain now has the AVE “Alta Velocidad Española” and in Italy the high speed train is Eurostar Italia.

Fastest Trains

Germany ICE Fst Train Engine Mainz Station photoThe fastest high speed train in Europe is the French TGV, (though the current world’s fastest train is now in China). The French design, though a bit more boxy looking in appearance, can go somewhat faster than the German ICE due to the double carriage design, where the connecting cars share the same wheels or “bogie” allowing for more stability, where on the German DB ICE, each coach is an individual unit. Where the TGV has the advantage of a bit more speed, the ICE can more easily adjust the composition of the trains for more routes and varying passenger loads.

How fast do the high speed trains go?

Thalys High Speed Train Engine photoHow fast do the high speed trains go? The TGV record speed in 2007 was 357 miles per hour. The trains rarely travel at maximum speeds in service. The TGV tops out just under 200 miles an hour (320 kph) on operational routes. The ICE trains reach up to around 175 mph, though typically travel at somewhat less. You can watch the speedometer provided at the end of the coach where 280 kph is about what you'll see at the top end. Depending how far the journey is between stations and how populated the area, the speeds will vary. Ultimately, you may not notice the difference. High speed trains have sealing doors to keep the air pressure stabilized so the ride is smooth and comfortable and may not seem that much faster than some regular trains. Most of the high speed trains have restaurant cars and both first class and second class service. Some require reservations, others do not, though reservations are advisable on long travel routes. If buying a single trip ticket for either first class or second class, the reservation is of course included.

TGV - France Très Grande Vitesse

The TGV, operated by the SCNF French National Railway, runs within France (and Belgium to Brussels and some Germany stations), with connections to other countries from terminus cities. The system was developed with Paris as a hub and routes radiating to other cities through France. The first line was between Paris and Lyon, still the most popular route, running from Paris through Dijon (see Dijon Rail Central Hotels) to Lyon, Avignon and Nice on the French Riviera (see Nice Comfort Hotels), with a branch line to Marseilles . The TGV Est (East) completed in 2009 runs from Paris to Strasbourg or Basel with connections to the German DB or Swiss SBB, (see TGV Lyria Paris to Switzerland). The Eurostar terminal from London or Brussels is Paris Nord. The TGV lines in Paris operate from different stations. Paris Est station is a few blocks from the Paris Nord Station on the northeast of central Paris. Or the Paris Gare Lyon station for the lines to the south which requires a Metro or taxi transfer from Paris Nord. With a Eurail Rail Pass or Interrail, the TGV does not strictly require a reservation, but advisable on the high traffic routes and especially for long distances.

Rail Europe TGV Booking Center

ICE - Germany Inter City Express

Speedometer screen in ICE Train photoThe German ICE trains operate between all the major cities in Germany with no centralized hub. They all run on the same tracks and routes as the standard rail trains of the DeutschBahn. Some ICE train routes carry into neighboring countries, several routes in Switzerland, (see Tour the Rhine by Rail Pass), Belgium and the Netherlands (see Benelux By Rail Pass). The ICE trains run on regular schedules throughout the day, about every two hours on some routes and once an hour at rush hour between some cities. ICE trains have electrical outlets for laptops and some are wireless connected.

ICE First Class Seating photoThe ICE generally doesn’t require a reservation for Eurail rail pass holders (though some international trains do need a reserved seat and will have a note on the schedule board). First Class seats will be readily available throughout the day, but can fill up at rush hours with business commuters. Most ICE trains do not require any additional costs for rail pass holders, though some trains at rush hours may require a supplement, which can be paid at a ticket office or to the conductor. If traveling on an ICE Train with some form of rail pass and no reservation, look for the reservation indicator above the seat, most are now electronic. If there is a city pair next to the seat number like "Frankfurt-Berlin" that means the seat is reserved for that section of the route, but available the other parts of the route. You may sit in the seat until the train reaches the city indicated, then would have to move to another open seat. If the indicator is blank that means the seat is open. There is space for luggage on racks above the seats, but on some trains the overseat racks can be a bit narrow in height. There are baggage racks for larger suitcases at the ends of the cars or some room between the seats. (see Germany's ICE Fast Train).

Example Travel Times between cities on the ICE
Munich to Hamburg - 6 hours
Hamburg to Frankfurt - 3 hours 35 minutes
Cologne to Berlin - 4 hours 20 minutes
Stuttgart-Dusseldorf - 2 hours 40 minutes

Rail Europe ICE Booking Center


The Thalys is a high speed train running from Paris to Brussels, then to Cologne via Liege (see Liege-Guillemins) or to Amsterdam via Antwerp, with stops on 17 cities in all. The Thalys used the same train equipment as the TGV but recognized by its distinctive Crimson and Silver paint scheme, sometime just call the "red train". You can get a special discount fare on the Thalys if you make a connection in Brussels on a SNCB (Belgian Rail) train to another stop in Belgium. not served by the Thalys directly, like Bruges (see Halve Mann Brewery), Ghent, Ypres or Mons (Romantic Mons).

Thalys Ticket Windoe Brussels Zuid Station photoThe Thalys has reclining seats with audio and music programs to relax while racing across the flat plains of Northern France and Belgium, with a Bistro Restaurant car and trolley snack service. The Thalys Train does require a reservation with or without a rail pass. Main Stations on the Thalys route have their own distinctive ticketing booths, though tickets can be purchased online or at regular rail ticket windows. The Thalys train departs and arrives in Paris from the same station as the Eurostar, Paris Nord, so requires no cross Paris transfer, like the TGV. Though if one were traveling between Brussels and London, without needing to stop in Paris, the Eurostar offers a direct route London-Brussels. In Brussels, the Thalys, TGV and ICE trains stop at the Brussels Zuid (South) Station.

Example Times between cities on the Thalys
Paris to Brussels - 1 hour 17 minutes
Paris to Amsterdam - 3 hours 18 minutes
Amsterdam to Brussels - 1 hour 53 minutes
Brussels to Cologne - 1 hour 47 minutes
Paris to Cologne - 3 hours 14 minutes

Rail Europe Thalys Booking Center

AVE - Spain Alta Velocidad Española

Spain's AVE High Speed Train operates between the country's larger cities, Madrid, Seville, Malaga and Barcelona. The AVE is the most recent of the high speed rail designs reaching speeds up to 186 mph and operates on standard gauge track, where most of the Spanish rail network is a broad gage. This was chosen so that the AVE could run in other European countries in the future like the ICE does. Currently the AVE does not directly connect with France, but a tunnel project through the Pyranees is underway with a connecting route from Barcelona to Montpellier in France expected to open in 2012. The AVE offers an on time arrival guarantee on some routes as Spanish RENFE state rail trains can be a little casual on the schedule.

Rail Europe AVE Booking Center

Eurostar Italia - Italy Alta Velocità

Trentalia, the Italian State Railway operates the Eurostar Italia AV (Alta Velocità) throughout Italy on standard track routes with the same equipment as British-French Eurostar. The long "boot" of Italy is ideal for a high speed rail. Travel to Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Bologna or Naples with the stunning scenery of vineyards and ancient towns in stress-free comfort.

Reservations are compulsory on the Eurostar Italia, with a 10 Euro suppliment for both first class and second class passagers holding a Eurail Pass. First class reservations include snack and a hot or cold drink served at your seat and on morning trains a daily newspaper is offered. Advance purchase discounts are available on the Italia Eurostar.

Example Travel Times in Italy on Eurostar Italia
Milan to Bologna - 1 hour 5 minutes
Milan to Venice - 2 hours 20 minutes
Rome to Milan - 3 hours 30 minutes
Rome to Venice - 3 hours 59 minutes
Rome to Naples - 1 hour 21 minutes

Rail Europe Eurostar Italia Booking

The Cisalpino

The Italian Cisalpino is a tilting train which operates between Northern Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Not an especially high speed train, its tilting action allows it to travel faster through the mountains. A trip from Milan to Basel takes about 4 hours and 30 minutes. The Cisalpino is being updated with newer equipment.

Switzerland ICN

Switzerland does not have its own a high speed train, but doesn't really need one, they just make the routes faster with new tunnels. They do have a new "N"' train which like the Cisalpino allows the cars to tilt on the carriages so the train can take curves at higher speed, allowing them to shorten some route times. The trains which run on InterCity routes don't really go that much faster, but the ride is a bit smoother (see Switzerland By Rail Pass). High speed train lines like the ICE and TGV Lyria do operate in Switzerland on specific routes, but travel at standard speeds for intercity trains. © Bargain Travel Europe

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