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Jump aboard a train and be part of one of the fastest-growing trends in travel, writes Jane E. Fraser.
Rail travel is on a determined upward curve thanks to new services, faster travel times, improved on-board comforts and environmental benefits.
In Europe in particular, trains are increasingly replacing flights as the preferred method of travel for both business and leisure travellers.
Train travel times have been significantly reduced by the introduction of more high-speed services – at a time when airline check-in times have increased due to security measures – and travellers have made the switch to the extent that flights have been withdrawn from key routes such as Paris-Brussels.
"Once you start getting under 3 hours (by train), you're really making flying obsolete," says the chief executive of Rail Plus, David Stafford.
"Madrid-Barcelona is now two hours and 40 minutes – that's killing off the flights.
"From December, the Paris-Amsterdam route comes down to three hours and 18 minutes, and that's going to put a huge amount of pressure on airlines that fly that route."
Rail Plus and other rail specialists are reporting sales are up on last year, at a time when many other tourism sectors are feeling the crunch. And while Europe is spearheading the growth, other areas such as Japan and Canada are pulling their weight.
Stafford says Japan "has gone absolutely ballistic for us this year", with bookings for the 2009 calendar year expected to exceed the $2 million mark.
He says the US remains a small market for leisure train travel but Canada is popular, with bookings split about 50-50 between the scenic Rocky Mountaineer journey and point-to-point travel.
Rail Europe, which has 95 per cent market share in European rail, is set to play a much bigger role on the Australian scene, with plans to become a one-stop shop for rail journeys around the world.
It is about to open bookings for the US's Amtrak system and will expand over coming months to include Japan, Canada, India and Trans-Siberian journeys.
Coach and cruise holiday operator APT is also banking on rail, having acquired a majority stake in the British-based GW Travel (GWT) rail touring company earlier this year.
GWT specialises in long-distance, luxury tours by private train, with its flagship being the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express in Russia. Another Australian company, Tempo Holidays, has added Indian luxury train Maharajas' Express to its offerings, with journeys available from January.
The train travels on seven- and eight-day itineraries between Mumbai and Delhi and between Delhi and Kolkata, with all-inclusive prices starting at $5938 a person.
The US's Amtrak system has traditionally had a bad name among travellers but it has recorded six consecutive years of growth, and now carries more than 28 million passengers a year.
The figures include commuter traffic but Amtrak now services more than 500 destinations; many of these routes are used by tourists.
The north-east corridor, including Boston, New York and Washington DC, is the busiest route, followed by the Pacific Sunliner service, which carries passengers from San Diego to Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo.
Rail Europe employee Richard Leonard says improved technology has played a role in the growth of rail travel, allowing agents to make live bookings rather than emailing requests and going back and forth to find availability.
E-ticketing, available now on only a handful of routes, will also be rolled out to the Australian market next year.
Stafford says there has been a strong trend towards late bookings, with 70 per cent being made for travel within the next month.
There has also been a trend away from rail passes and towards point-to-point tickets, due to a requirement for seat reservations on high-speed trains. "The railways got much smarter in making reservations compulsory for the high-speed lines," Stafford says.
"In the past, it was a case of buying your pass and jumping on any train you felt like."
However, rail passes continue to represent the best value in some countries, such as Spain, Germany and Scandinavia, where point-to-point tickets are expensive.
Leonard says Australian travellers can pick up great deals for European trains in July and August, due to business travel dropping off during the northern summer holiday period.
Travellers can often pick up the rail equivalent of a business-class ticket for only a few dollars more than a standard one.
Next plane leaves from Platform 26
EXPECT cheaper rail travel and more options in Europe from 2011, when the market will be deregulated and opened up to competition.
Rail Plus chief executive David Stafford says the first route likely to see significant changes is London-Paris, on which Eurostar has 80 per cent market share of all forms of transport on the route.
Air France has indicated its interest in operating a competing train on the route and Stafford says we can expect to see a lot more “airline trains”, such as those operated by Lufthansa in Germany.
This development will almost certainly bring down fares.
“If you look at when the low cost carriers came into the market, and brought extra competition to the routes, the first thing that happened was fares came down,” says Stafford.
Source: The Sun-Herald
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