World's Fastest Trains

Forbes India Global Business Traveller's Guide: Though slowly but High-speed rail travel is becoming a viable option in many parts of the world

Published: May 19, 2010 06:36:31 AM IST
Updated: Dec 5, 2013 04:23:59 PM IST
World's Fastest Trains
Image: G. Bowater / Corbis
SUMMER OF SPEED Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV), a high speed train travels through fields of sunflower in France

In this age of thrift — with its emphasis on efficiency with low cost — business travellers are rediscovering the convenience (and the romance) of taking the train. This is not just a fallout of the recent global economic crisis. Business travellers in Europe and Japan have for years enjoyed the benefits of a dense network of high-speed rail lines. Now the US is making big investments in this area. It has set aside $8 billion to create 13 high-speed rail corridors. China too has ambitious plans. It wants to build 13,000 km of railway by 2012, and wants to connect the network to other countries as well — including a Beijing-London high-speed rail link!

The fastest trains in Europe, China and Japan run at 300-350 kmph. Spain’s Alta Velocidad Española (AVE, which means bird in Spanish) covers the 500 km between Madrid and Barcelona in just around three hours. Frankfurt to Paris by France’s Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) or Germany’s Inter City Express (ICE) takes about four hours. London to Paris too is just about two-and-a-half hours away by the Eurostar. All that speed, with no perceptible vibration within the cabin and a smaller carbon footprint than air travel. And leg room!

A flight on any of these sectors would take about an hour and 15 minutes, but the total time, door-to-door, comes to roughly the same if you add up how long it takes to get to the airport, check-in and clear security, collect baggage and then get out and drive to your final destination within the city. Add to that saturated airports and flights that are forced to circle the airport till they get permission to land.

A Different Plane
Nothing beats the convenience of getting into a train minutes before it leaves, from the heart of the city and then get out again into the heart of another city. The trains in Japan and Europe also have a near perfect score for punctuality.


Infographics: Malay Karmakar

“Busy airports, long queues for security and traffic jam are big stress points for many business passengers. With fast and efficient train networks like the TGV in France and the Shinkansen, between Tokyo and Osaka, the advantage is clear,” says Ashwini Kakkar, executive vice-chairman, Mercury Travels. Besides, once you’ve been to Europe often enough, you realise that it’s considered cool to take the train”, says Gopinath Parayil, founder of The Blue Yonder, a Bangalore-based ‘responsible travel’ company.

It’s not just about speed. Train operators have realised the potential and are providing services and comforts designed to lure the business traveller. There are the obvious comforts of space, being able to use the phone and the Internet, and getting better, fresher food than you get on a plane. Then there are added services like booking a taxi through the train conductor if you are travelling by first class on some of the European trains. The Eurostar that runs between London-Paris and London-Brussels, also offers a business class with fast track check-in, and a lounge with wireless access. Some European trains even provide meeting areas for small groups of people, or give you the option of being in a “quiet carriage” — no mobile phones or talking allowed — for a relaxed journey.

With all that, high-speed rail compares favourably with air travel on price too. A quick comparison of trains and flights leaving in the early morning in mid-June show that a second class ticket typically costs almost half the Economy fare on a flight. And if you were to fly Premium Economy on sectors like Paris-Amsterdam, you’d end up paying Rs. 20,000, while a first class ticket for the same sector on the Thalys would cost Rs. 5,000.

According to media reports, there have already been big shifts in passenger numbers from airlines to trains — and not just because of Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud. High-speed trains carry almost half of the passengers between Madrid and Barcelona. Similarly, after the Wuhan–Guangzhou line was commissioned, it has been reported that China’s airlines slashed prices to compete.

World's Fastest Trains
Image: Jiro / Corbis
FAST FORWARD China's Harmony Express speeds through at 350 kmph

“I prefer to travel by train within the UK and continental Europe because it’s fast and there’s fantastic service… it’s easier, more convenient because of time and security,” says Mohandas Pai, director-human resources, education and research and administration at Infosys.

Yet, not everybody is sold wholly on the idea. Indian travel agents say that hardly any Indians book on train for business travel — and for good reasons too.

Rush Hour
According to one senior executive with an Indian company that has global interests, business travellers usually spend just a day or two in a city, so a flight ends up being more convenient — even in Europe, which is well-connected by train — as you can have it all booked beforehand, online. He has been in international marketing since 1993, and prefers a flight, especially if he needs to hop from country to country. If you want to travel by train, he says, you’d need a local agent who can check timetables and arrange everything for you.

That may change, now that Rail Europe has tied up with Amadeus in India. So Indian travellers can book train journeys in Europe at

Not All Networks are Created Equal
In China, it’s still early days. Despite all the buzz about the shiny new high-speed trains, the network is still patchy, with just a handful of cities connected so far. Besides, distances are huge within China, so flying works out better. Trains may not be a good option for foreign travellers, as language can be a problem — even to take a taxi, you often need to get your hotel’s concierge to write down the address in Chinese for the driver. That said, once the network is in place, trains could be an attractive option. The Wuhan–Guangzhou Harmony Express takes just three hours to cover the 968 km distance. And Shanghai-Beijing would be just five hours apart once the high-speed line linking Beijing and Shanghai opens by early 2012.

The USA may have the world’s largest railway network, but when it comes to high-speed trains at least, it is still years behind Europe, Japan and even China. There is talk of providing money for a good rail network for the future, but this is not in place today, says Carol Ann Salcito. She is president, Management Alternatives, a firm that advises companies on business travel policies, purchasing and employee security. Hardly anyone chooses a train in the US because of the sheer size of the country: It would take days to get from coast to coast by train.

Even so, there are some networks used extensively by corporate travellers. Salcito says Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express (Boston-New York-Washington D.C.), which runs at half the speed of its peers elsewhere, has captured half the air traffic between Washington D.C. and New York.

Other lines are slower still, but Alok Kejriwal, CEO, Games2Win, doesn’t mind that on occasion. “San Diego to LA is, I think, a 40- to 60-minute flight, but I recently travelled by the Amtrak Surfliner, which skirts along the beach instead. It took me four hours but there was a romance in travelling along the beaches.”

Home Track
India’s railway network is the largest under one management, but it caters primarily to travel for lower income strata. Business travel with any degree of comfort is strictly limited: the Rajdhanis, connecting important cities to the national capital (average speed about 87 kmph), the Shatabdis, which cluster around state capitals, and the newly introduced Durontos that travel at the same speed as the Rajdhanis, but take less time as they have fewer halts.

Even so, some prefer the train in India, over some sectors. “I used to know one businessman who always preferred an overnight journey to Delhi on the Rajdhani to a flight. He’d get onto the train in the evening, and spend the journey comfortably to arrive in Delhi in great shape the next morning. If we have faster trains in India, this could certainly be a preferred mode of transport,” says Mercury’s Ashwini Kakkar. The Rajdhani covers the 1,385 km between the two cities in 16 hours.

However, India is considering HSR. Indian Railways has commissioned feasibility studies for high-speed corridors. If it gets the green signal, trips like Delhi-Amritsar or Mumbai-Ahmedabad would be just about 90 minutes, with trains running at 350 kmph.

(Additional reporting by Cuckoo Paul, Rohin Dharmakumar & Nilofer D’Souza)

World's Fastest Trains
TRAIN WITH A VIEW The Royal Scotsman's observation car

When Getting There Is Half the Fun…

Tired of dashing from city to city? Here’s how to take it slow and enjoy the view, in great style

As trains first chugged into the grand new stations in Europe in the mid 19th Century, they fascinated contemporary artists. British painter JMW Turner’s 1844 masterpiece, Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway, captured the romance, the speed, the modern world clattering its way through a bucolic setting. The French Impressionist Monet immortalised the Gare Saint-Lazare station in Paris in a series of paintings. Manet’s The Railway shows the same station from a different view, with the train hinted at only through a cloud of smoke. Songs have been sung about them, books and movies have been set in them, and even in today’s high-speed world, the fascination lingers.

Of course 21st century business travellers also want their creature comforts. And some signature railway trains aim to seduce that hardened breed with facilities even the best airlines wouldn’t be able to offer: Spacious cabins, world-class amenities, dining cars that serve the best of cuisine and personalised service. Here are six trains, in no particular order, that give you all the romance of train travel, with heaping helpings of luxury.

The Venice Simplon Orient Express
Paris-Venice-Rome (4 days/3 nights), Rs. 175,128 (per person, shared occupancy of a suite cabin)
Next Tour Dates: Various dates in May The “original” luxury train, it derives part of its mystique from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Post-WWII, the train gradually lost its allure and was retired in 1977. It was restored by rail enthusiast James B. Sherwood and came back on the tracks in 1982.

It features the original 1920s carriages and still offers the signature journey up to Istanbul.

The Royal Scotsman
Classic journey - Dundee, Montrose, Aberdeen, Keith, Inverness, Plockton, Dalwhinnie and Perth (4 nights). Rs. 253,493 (per person, twin sharing)
Next Tour Dates: May 10, 16, 22, 31
The highlight has to be the open-ended observation car at the end of the train. As the train travels through the Highlands, you can take in the mountains, castles and villages from the comfortable sofas placed by the windows, or step out onto the open veranda for a wind-in-your-face experience. The train travels only through the day, so you sleep soundly at night.

Royal Canadian Pacific
Royal Canadian Rockies Experience
beginning and ending in Calgary, Alberta (6 days/5 nights). Rs. 354,644 + tax (per person)
Next Tour Dates: July 21-27, 2010
One of the world’s classic journeys takes you through the Canadian Rockies, which offer some of the most rugged and spectacular terrain in the world, and several wildlife preserves. The high point, quite literally, is the Eagle’s Eye Express (at 7,700 feet) for spectacular 360° views of the mountains. You can also get a spot of golf and fly-fishing along the way.

The Blue Train


FEELING BLUE The Blue Train ambles past the table Mountain near Cape Town

Pretoria – Cape Town (27 hours), Rs. 65,300 (Luxury, per person sharing)
Next Tour Dates: Up to August 31
How about an excursion to South Africa’s legendary Kimberley diamond fields, a British outpost, the Cango Caves sculpted by water when the land lay under the ocean for millennia, an African Safari and some golf thrown in for good measure? All that is on offer on various route on the Blue Train.

Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express
Across Siberia (15 days), Moscow to Vladivostok, Rs. 699,955 (per person, gold class, twin sharing)
Next Tour Dates: May 10 - May 24 (Eastbound)
This is probably the best way to see Siberia — combining the thrill of an epic journey with the comfort of travelling on a first-class train.
The 15-day ride will also take you to Mongolia. Alternatively, you can choose to take the Silk Road journey from Moscow to Beijing, which takes you through historic cities like Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. For this, you change over to the Shangri-La express for the Chinese sector. All said, an experience not to be missed.

Palace on Wheels
A Week in Wonderland (7 Nights / 8 Days, Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambhor National Park, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Agra, Delhi), Rs. 120,094 (Deluxe, per person, twin sharing)
Next Tour Dates: August 4, 2010
This eight-day ride takes you through the erstwhile princely states of Rajasthan, including Sawai Madhopur which gives you access to the tiger reserve at Ranthambhor National Park. There are day excursions at each stopover.
If you want to see more of royal India, opt for the 16-nights/17-days India by Rail journey. After you disembark at Delhi, you fly to Mumbai and board the Deccan Odyssey luxury train. This leg of the journey takes you through some of the Maratha fort towns in Maharashtra, to Aurangabad steeped in Mughal history and to Goa.

(Compiled by Sveta Basraon)


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(This story appears in the 21 May, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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