A traveller's guide to the high speed railway lines in Europe and the high speed trains that use them!
The original intention was to produce a ThereByTrain guide to high speed trains because they give such a ‘wow factor’ to European train travel.
However, focusing on the trains themselves can be deceptive because many journeys by the different types of high speed trains – find them highlighted in bold on this trains guide - aren’t high speed at all.
High speed trains only travel at their maximum speed on especially constructed high speed railway lines, but on the majority of journeys, the trains are only travelling on these lines for a percentage of the trip – and this percentage can be surprisingly small.
And between many popular destinations, the ‘high speed trains’ don’t travel on high speed lines at all;
These journeys include:
- Bologna – Venice;
- Marseilles – Nice;
- Munich – Stuttgart;
- Cologne – Hannover;
- Zaragoza - Leon
So if you want to experience the thrill factor* of high speed trains, then you need to actually be travelling on these specific HIGH SPEED LINES, so that’s what we’ve focused on below.
* = Don’t expect to be wowed by both the speed and the scenery, zooming across the ground aside, high speed lines can make for a dull travel experience – with few exceptions you can expect to see not much besides flat landscapes, the insides of tunnels and concrete sound barriers.
What is a high speed line?
There are seemingly various definitions of this, but ThereByTrain is going to use a rule of;
1. The train must travel on a railway line especially constructed for high speed trains.
2. Trains must travel along the line at 250 kilometres per hour/155 miles per hour OR MORE
You need to be travelling at those speeds for the ‘wow factor’ of feeling as though you’re flying across the ground and we’re guessing that it is that sensation which defines high speed train travel for many travellers.
There are some other new railway lines in Europe that allow trains to travel at a higher speed than normal because they’re straighter than previous lines, but the trains that use them aren’t quite fast enough to meet the above criteria.
So the following 'higher speed lines’ have been EXCLUDED from ThereByTrain’s High Speed Line Guide;
- Bern – Olten (Switzerland)
- Warsaw – Krakow (Poland
- Vienna/Wien – Linz (Austria)
- Brussels/Bruxelles – Liege (Belgium)
- Aachen – Cologne/Koln (Germany)
Only certain countries in Europe have built high speed lines and there are also a handful of international high speed routes that cross borders .
All the longer distance high speed lines, that can make such a massive difference to train travel, have been included on the guide below.
We’re not being lazy, but we’re not going to use the ‘proper names’ for the lines, you can find these facts and more on Wikipedia, instead what‘s been focusd upon is the information most likely to be pertinent to people who want to travel in Europe in train for leisure purposes.
These lines are often only part of the the route taken by high speed trains.
London – Lille
The route on either side of the English Channel used by Eurostar (EST) trains, travellers may be relieved to discover that the trains are not traveling at high speed while in the tunnel.
Fastest Journey times:
London – Lille = 1hr 22mins
London - Paris = 2h 16 mins
London – Brussels = 2hr 2mins
The only alternative to this routing is the 9 hour (+) journey involving train and ferry and there’s more info about that on HERE - click the ‘To Great Britain by train and ferry’ header.
(Lille) – Brussels/Bruxelles
This line is taken by:
- Eurostar (EST) trains between the British and Belgian capitals;
- Thalys (THA) trains on the Paris – Brussels – Amsterdam and Paris – Brussels – Cologne/Koln routes (the only direct trains between Paris and Brussels/Bruxelles)
And now new direct trains between Lille and Amsterdam
- TGVR trains from and to Brussels/Bruxelles and various cities in France other than Paris including Lyon, Marseilles, Montpellier and Nimes.
The Paris - Brussels/Amsterdam/Cologne Thalys trains don’t pass through Lille, but they switch to this line from the Paris –Lille line near to the city.
On ThereByTrain we’ve designated the TGVs that travel to/from Brussels as TGVR because for rail pass users they have different terms and conditions to the TGVs that operate solely within France.
There are no other direct trains between both Lille/Paris and Brussels, but it’s possible to travel by train across the French/Belgian border on an alternative route and we explain how on the 'Trains From France' page - click the 'from Lille to Belgium' header.
Antwerp/Antwerpen – Rotterdam
Thalys trains on the Paris – Brussels – Antwerp – Rotterdam – Amsterdam route and was briefly used by FYRA trains between Brussels/Bruxelles and Amsterdam.
These FYRA trains have had to be withdrawn permanently due to mechanical faults!
Thalys train tickets can be comparatively expensive when the limited numbers of advance discounted tickets have sold out and rail pass users should definitely avoid them if possible.
There is an alternative non high speed route via Roosendaal, (used by the IC trains that have replaced the FYRA trains!)
More information about that route is available HERE - click the 'Trains To The Netherlands from Belgium' header
Alternative route journey times:
Antwerp - Rotterdam = 1hr 12mins
Liege - Aachen
This line is used in both directions by ICE trains on the Brussels/Bruxelles – Cologne/Koln – Frankfurt (Main) route AND Thalys (THA) trains on the Paris – Brussels - Brussels/Bruxelles – Cologne/Koln – (Essen) route.
Both of these services travel on high/higher speed lines for virtually the entire journey from Bruxelles to Koln, but it’s only on the Liege – Aachen part of the route that the trains accelerate to their full speed.
The ICE and Thalys trains operate at very similar speeds.
However, rail pass users should target the ICE trains, as supplements
are NOT COMPULSORY on the ICE trains in comparison to the expensive supplements that are required for the Thalys trains.
At times when the ICE departure isn’t convenient, there are still local cross border trains shuffling between Liege and Aachen on the old line.
Alternative route journey times:
Liege - Aachen = 50 mins
Perpignan - Figueres
Now used by the new daytime ELP trains between France and Barcelona.
However, for the time being this line should actually be excluded from this list, due to technical reasons neither the French TGV trains or the Spanish AVE trains, that are used for the new Elipsos services accelerate to high speed on this section of line.
An alternative slower, cheaper, but more scenic route is available, but you need to change trains at Port Bou when travelling from France to Spain and in Cerbere when travelling from Spain to France.
More info on how to do that is available here on the Trains from Spain and the Trains To Spain pages.
High speed lines in France are marked on this MAP
There is only type of French high speed train on routes that are confined within France and that is the TGV, though as we explain on our French trains GUIDE, there are different types of TGV.
High speed lines fan out in all directions from Paris, but here’s a unique guide to what percentage of the journey TIME that you’ll be travelling on a high speed line for when journeying to/from the French capital by TGV:
and no we haven’t got a calculator out, we’ve taken an educated guess – note that word ‘guide’
95% - Aix-en-Provence; Avignoon (TGV); Dijon; Le Mans; Lille, Lyon, Marseilles, Valence; Tours/(St Pierre des Corps)
90% - Besancon; Mulhouse; Nancy; Metz; Reims; Strasbourg; Toulon
80% - Grenoble; Montpellier; Poitiers; Rennes
75% - Beziers; Chamberry; Nantes
60% - Annecy; Narbonne; Nice
50% - Bordeaux; Brest; Perpignan
35% - Biarritz; Toulouse
30% - Hendaye; Lourdes
The above list should hopefully be particularly useful to rail pass users.
Once you’ve paid the supplement to travel by TGV it’s useful to know what percentage of the journey that you’ll actually be travelling at the high speeds that you’ve just paid a premium for.
How to avoid having to pay those supplements when travelling to/from Paris with is featured on this page
TGV trains on non high speed routes
TGVs can also travel for fairly long distances without using high speed lines at all
These journeys include;
- Bordeaux – Hendaye/Lourdes/Poitiers/Toulouse
- Nice – Marseilles/Aix-en-Provence
- Rennes – Brest
- Nimes – Perpignan
Reims – 46mins
Lille = 1hr 2mins
Tours = 1hr 12mins
Dijon = 1hr 35 mins
Poitiers = 1hr 40mins
Lyon = 1hr 58 mins
Strasbourg = 2hr 20mins
Avignon = 2hr 44mins
Marseilles = 3hr 9mins
Bordeaux = 3hr 14mins
Montpellier = 3hr 19mins
There is a network of lines to the south and east of Paris that enable TGVs trains travelling across the country to avoid the French capital.
These useful cross country services are an alternative to having to transfer between main line stations in Paris.
On these lines are stations linked to the main international airport in Paris, Aeroport CDG, as well as Marne La Vallée station which is very close to Disneyland Paris.
International high speed trains in France
There are multiple international types of train that travel on the French high speed network.
- Alleo – Paris to Frankfurt (Main)/Munich/Stuttgart
- Eurostar (EST) – Paris/Lille to London
- Lyria (TGVL) – Paris to Basel/Geneva/Bern/Lausanne/Zurich
- TGVFI – Paris to Turin/Milan
- TGVFS – Paris to Barcelona (from a date tbc)
- Thalys – Paris to Amsterdam/Brussels/Cologne
High speed lines in Germany are marked on this MAP
They are used by ICE trains and the different types of ICE train are explained in more detail HERE
The three primary high speed lines in Germany
Of these the Koln – Frankfurt Airport line has a higher speed of 300kmh, it is used exclusively by ICE3 trains on the following principle routes;
- Amsterdam/Bruxelles – Koln – Frankfurt Flughafen – Frankfurt (Main)
- Essen –Koln –Frankfurt Flughafen – Frankfurt (Main) – Nuremberg – Munich/Munchen
- Dortmund – Essen/Wuppertal - Koln - Frankfurt Flughafen – Mannheim – Stuttgart – Munich/Munchen
- Koln - Frankfurt Flughafen – Mannheim – Karlsruhe - Basel
These ICE3 trains can be seen in this video.
ICE 1 trains use the Hannover – Wurzburg line on these routes;
- Hamburg/Bremen – Hannover – Kassel – Wurzburg – Nuremberg – Munchen
- *Hamburg – Hannover – Kassel – Frankfurt (Main) – Frankfurt Flughafen – Mannheim – Stuttgart
- *Hamburg – Hannover – Kassel – Frankfurt (Main) – Mannheim – Karlsruhe –Basel – Zurich
- *Berlin – Kassel – Frankfurt (Main) – Mannheim – Karlsruhe –Basel – Bern - Interlaken
- *Berlin – Kassel – Frankfurt (Main) – Mannheim – Stuttgart – Munchen
- Hamburg – Hannover – Kassel – Wurzburg – Nuremberg – Linz – Vienna/Wien
* = these trains travel over the majority of this line.
Fastest Journey times:
Hannover – Wurzburg = 2hr 2mins
ICE2 trains use the Wolfsburg - Berlin line on these routes;
- Dusseldorf – Essen – Dortmund – Hamm – Hannover – Berlin
- Koln –Wuppertal – Hamm – Hannover – Berlin
Fastest Journey times:
Berlin hbf - Hannover = 1hr 37mins
ICE 1 trains on the Berlin – Interlaken/Munchen via Frankfurt routes also use this line
Other high speed lines in Germany:
There are also shorter high speed lines in Germany between;
- Mannheim – Stuttgart
- Karlsruhe – Offenburg
- Nuremberg - Ingoldstadt
The Mannheim - Stuttgart line is used by high speed ICE trains on these routes;
(1) Dortmnd - Koln - Frankfurt Flughafen/Airport - Mannheim - Stuttgart - Munchen
(2) Berlin - Frankfurt (Main) - Mannheim - Stuttgart - Munchen
(3) Hamburg - Frankfurt (Main) - Frankfurt Flughafen - Mannheim - Stuttgart
The Karlsruhe - Offenburg line is used by high speed ICE trains on these routes;
(1) Koln - Frankfurt Flughafen/Airport - Mannheim - Karlsruhe - Basel
(2) Berlin - Frankfurt (Main) - Mannheim - Karlsruhe - Basel - Interlaken
(3) Hamburg - Frankfurt (Main) - Mannheim - - Karlsruhe - Basel - Zurich
The Nurnberg - Ingoldstadt line is used by high speed ICE trains on these routes;
(1) Essen - Koln - Frankfurt Flughafen/Airport - Framkfurt (Main) - Nurnberg - Munchen
(2) Hamburg - Hannover - Nurnberg - Munchen
(3) Berlin - Leipzig - Nurnberg - Munchen
This line also used by the only Regional Express (RE) trains in Germany that travel on a high speed line, which provide a shuttle service between Nurnberg and Munchen.
Non high speed lines used by high speed trains in Germany:
However, ICE trains can travel for long distances on ordinary non-high speed lines including;
- Hamburg – Dortmund – Koln
- Munchen – Stuttgart
- Hannover – Hamm – Koln/Dusseldorf
- Nuremberg – Leipzig – Berlin*
- Hamburg – Berlin*
- Frankfurt (Main) – Leipzig – Dresden*
This is worth knowing as ICE train tickets are usually more expensive than alternative (IC) trains - though on the routes above marked with an * - the ICE (ICET) trains tilt so that they travel at a higher speed than alternative IC trains.
The high speed line in Italy is marked on this MAP
It now stretches from Torino – Napoli through Milano; Bologna, Firenze and Roma.
Although trains travel more slightly more slowly on the Firenze-Roma section than on the other parts of the route.
The line is unusual because privately operated trains branded ‘Italo’ compete with the ‘Freccia’ high speed trains operated by Italian state rail operator, FS.
Broadly speaking the Italo trains can be slightly cheaper, but they can also be less convenient as they don’t use the primary city centre stations in Milano/Milan and Roma/Rome
The 'Freccia' Trains (previously known as AV trains)
FS operates two types of high speed train one the lines between Rome/Roma and both Bologna and Napoli, the ‘Frecciagento’ (FA) trains and the ‘Frecciarossa’ (FR) trains.
The 'Frecciarossa' (FR) trains can be seen in this video:
While they’re on the high speed lines the FR and FA trains travel at very similar speeds, but the key difference between them is that Frecciagento trains veer off to serve destinations not on the Italian high speed network including Bari, Venice/Venezia and Verona.
The Frecciarossa (FR) trains stick solely to the high speed lines, so they’re also the only type of high speed train operated by FS between Milano and both Bologna and Turin/Torino.
Fastest Journey times:
Milano (Centrale) – Roma (Termini) = 2hr 55 mins
Milano (Centrale) – Torino (Porta Susa) = 47mins
Milano (Centrale) – Firenze (S.M.N) = 1hr 40mins
Florence/Firenze (S.M.N) – Roma (Termini)= 1hr 32 mins
Roma (Termini) – Napoli (Centrale) = 1hr 10 mins
In contrast to the high speed lines in other European countries, particularly France and Spain, regular conventional express (IC) and/or semi-fast (REG) trains still operate on the old, slower routes, that parallel the high speed lines.
Therefore if you have time to spare (journeys can be twice as long by IC trains), avoiding the higher prices for tickets and supplements payable for the Freccia trains is fairly straightforward, though the cheaper alternative trains operate (much) less frequently.
Making reservations on Italian IC trains is highly recommended (trust us on this one!) particularly for longer journeys.
Spain has more kilometres of high speed railway lines than any other European country, they radiate out like the spokes on a wheel from Madrid to Alicante; Barcelona; Malaga; Valencia and Valladolid (for north and north west Spain) and they’ve recently been joined by the newly opened high speed line between Barcelona and Figeures - that is now used by international Elipsos (ELP) trains
Spain’s high speed lines are marked on this MAP
The different types of high speed train in Spain
What can cause confusion is that Spanish rail operator RENFE uses multiple specific types of train for the different services that use the high speed lines.
So here’s a simplified guide;
- AVE trains (as seen on the video above) are used on long distance routes that are solely on high speed lines.
These routes include most of the high speed trains to/from the Spanish capital
Between Madrid and Alicante; Barcelona; Figueres (via Barcelona); Malaga; Seville and Valencia.
There are also direct AVE trains between Barcelona and both Seville and Malaga.
- Avant (AVA) trains travel solely on high speed lines but for journeys over shorter (commuter) distances including; Madrid – Toledo and Seville – Malaga
- Alvila (ALV) and Altaria (ALT) trains travel on high speed lines for part of the journey only.
ALV trains in particular can travel long distances without using high speed lines including Bibao and Hendaye to Barcelona or Vallodolid.
Fastest Journey times:
Average journey times:
Madrid (Atocha) – Barcelona (Sants) = 2hrs 30mins
Madrid (Atocha) – Valencia (Joaquin Sorolla) = 1hr 38mins
Madrid (Atocha) – Cordoba = 1hr 44mins
Madrid (Atocha) – Malaga = 2hr 26mins
Madrid (Atocha) – Seville = 2hr 20mins
Madrid (Atocha) – Toledo = 33mins
Madrid (Chamartin) – Vallodolid = 56 mins
On the old conventional routes, that parallel the high speed lines, the number of daily trains has been drastically reduced.
For example, there is only one daily train in both directions between Barcelona and Madrid, that is an alternative to the AVEs on the high speed line.
On these routes that parallel the high speed lines, the trains are also both much slower and more prone to delay.
(The Barcelona – Girona – Figueres route – is an exception, there are much more frequent services than on the high speed high line when making this journey).
But if you want to save money, particularly if you’re using a Eurail or InterRail pass, it can pay to avoid travelling on the high speed lines in Spain.
In general the cost per kilometre of high speed train travel in Spain is comparable to travelling by high speed train in Germany or France, which means that tickets are comparatively expensive to other Spanish trains.
There are heavily discounted tickets available for Spanish high speed train travel, but obtaining them seems to be more of a lottery than in other countries, there’s (a lot more!) information HERE about how to get hold of them.
The only high speed line solely within The Netherlands provides faster journeys between Rotterdam and both Amsterdam (Centraal) and Schiphol, than the conventional line.
However, the only trains to use it, which meet ThereByTrain’s definition of a high speed train are the Thalys (THA) trains on the Paris – Bruxelles – Rotterdam – Amsterdam route (and we’re not 100% certain that they do in fact attain their maximum speed on this line).
You’ll have to be very keen to save time when travelling Amsterdam and Rotterdam to take the Thalys, as tickets will generally be more expensive than the Dutch trains.
There are other trains that use the line (now branded Inter City direct), but because the distance between the two cities is comparatively short, they’re only 5 mins slower than the Thalys.