» December brings faster speeds to Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Truly high-speed train travel, once confined to a few isolated corridors in France, Italy, and Germany, is rapidly expanding across Europe. With the opening of five new track segments to operations at more than 250 km/h (155 mph) on Sunday, the trend continues.
The biggest winners will be the residents of Italy and the Benelux countries. Italians will get access to quick Frecciarossa trains running the full 1,000 km distance between Salerno and Torino as a result of the completion of construction on three new track segments: between Novara and Milano (50 km); Bologna and Firenze (79 km); and Napoli and Gricignano (19 km). The intermediate line sections had been constructed in previous years, but this month’s openings will make seamless fast train travel possible along almost the entire length of the country. With a change in Roma, commuters will be able to travel between Torino and Napoli in a minimum of 5h45, more than the 4h40 possible on the equivalent-length Lille-Marseille line in France, but still quite quick.
The new link between Bologna and Firenze will allow 2h45 services between Milano and Roma, the country’s two most important cities. This is down significantly from the 3h30 minimum travel times available today, and was made possible only with the construction of 73 km of tunnels along the new line, which runs through the Apennines mountains. On February 3rd, Trenitalia ran a train at 362 km/h through one of the tunnels, breaking rail speed records in Italy. Typical operations will be limited to 300 km/h.
Meanwhile, in northern Europe, Thalys will begin running its trains on new tracks between Bruxelles and Köln and between Bruxelles and Amsterdam on Sunday. The new routes will allow trains to travel 51 minutes more quickly between Paris and Amsterdam (from 4h09 to 3h18) and 36 minutes more quickly between Paris and Köln (from 3h50 to 3h13); the latter route decreases trip times significantly for journeys continuing towards other destinations in Germany, such as Hamburg and Berlin.
Belgium is responsible for the new links between Antwerpen and the Dutch border, HSL 4, and between Bruxelles and the German border via Liège (and its remarkable new station), HSL 2 and 3. These new segments complete the Belgian high-speed system, which also includes HSL 1 between Bruxelles and the French border.
Faster speeds to Amsterdam are primary a result of the Netherlands’ investment in 100 km of new track on HSL Zuid between Antwerpen and the country’s capital, via Rotterdam. Some Netherlands rail NS Hispeed trains began using the tracks in September at speeds of only 160 km/h because of problems acquiring equipment from AnsaldoBreda, which is planning to deliver new 250 km/h-capable trainsets next fall after years of delays. Those services, which will extend as far south as Bruxelles, will be operated under a new brand called Fyra, which is jointly owned by the Belgian rail operator SNCB, NS Hispeed, and Air France.
Thalys plans to operate on segments of the track between Antwerpen and Rotterdam at 300 km/h beginning Sunday; in June of next year, speeds on the section from Rotterdam to Amsterdam will increase to those levels after signal upgrades, reducing overall travel time by five more minutes.
Thalys expects to take full advantage of the construction of these new corridors to dramatically expand its market share. While air traffic currently has 53% of the market between Paris and Amsterdam, 3h18 running times will likely convince hundreds of thousands of commuters to change their travel patterns. As a result, Thalys expects a 35% gain in traffic for 2010 and 65% by 2013. It is unclear what effect the new competition from Fyra on the Bruxelles-Amsterdam route will provoke. The less-used Paris-Köln route will see a 30% gain in passengers by 2013 according to projections.