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Europe's high speed trains unite to fight the budget airlines

As new trains and tracks cut down the time difference on door-to-door travel, a newly integrating EU railway network is working to wrest business traffic from the airlines the way that Eurostar did from the cross-channel ferries.

European railways' efforts to win traffic back from discount airlines moved onto a faster track this week, with the official launch of the Railteam alliance of major high-speed train operators. Those behind France's Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV), Germany's InterCity Express, the cross-channel Eurostar and five other networks agreed last month to form an integrated network that aims to match the airlines on speed as well as price. A new website offers higher booking speeds intended to match the high train speeds, with the hope of offering airline-style discounts in order to fill the fast-moving seats.

While they haven't yet attained the cruising speed of an airliner, the railways hope to close the time deficit because they can avoid the security queues and run right into city centers. Trains' greener glow, emitting one-tenth as much carbon even when running on diesel or conventionally generated electricity, is expected to be a further selling point - as is the business passengers' permission to keep their phones and laptops switched on. The CEO of TGV operator SNCF, Guillaume Pepy, who also chairs Eurostar, predicts 25 million high-speed passenger journeys by 2010, up from 15m in 2006.

Even with some greatly reduced journey times including 3 hours 50 minutes for Paris-Frankfurt and 6 hours 15 minutes for Paris-Munich, Railteam can't yet claim to get you there ahead of the short-haul airlines. Nor do its standard fares beat some of the better-known discount flights when booked in advance. But the price picture changes for passengers travelling at short notice, and the new network can point to investment under way which will add another 1300km of high-speed track (a 28% expansion) by 2010 and virtually double it to 7500km by 2020.

Stretches where the train can already accelerate to plane-like speeds include Naples to Firenze, Berlin to Hannover, Paris to Lyon and Madrid to Seville. To illustrate the streamlined shape of trains to come, the TGV (which regularly runs at 200mph (320kph) on the newly opened Paris-Strasbourg line) in April set a new record of 356mph (575kph) on a conventional track. And it does less damage to the scenery – if you can still see it. (financeweek.co.uk)