Alex McWhirter suggests ten lesser-known trains to try on your European travels

Everyone knows of Eurostar. Many of you will be aware of SNCF or Deutsche Bahn. But what about Elipsos, Italo or Lyria? These are just some of Europe’s most useful and comfortable train companies connecting key business cities by day or night and offering a viable alternative to the plane.

Some are “open access” operators taking advantage of EU rules allowing competition between train firms. Others are joint venture (JV) arrangements with their own revenue centres and a more service-minded culture towards passengers.

Certainly that is the case with TGV Lyria, a Franco-Swiss JV linking Paris with some of Switzerland’s – if not Europe’s – wealthiest cities, and whose staff have to serve demanding clientele.

Interviewed by rail magazine IRJ in June, Alain Barbey, director-general of TGV Lyria, boasted of a 34 per cent rise in passenger numbers over the past three years. Some of that increase is down to faster trains (owing to the opening of the Rhine-Rhone TGV line) but higher service standards are also a factor.

Barbey said: “We’ve found a high rate of customer satisfaction. Every time we add a new service we introduce a new customer-orientated culture. This is now our policy, adapting to the passenger.”

But not everything is perfect. Mark Smith, founder of rail site, wishes that open-access companies would operate across borders. “The competition is happening on routes already well served by the national operator,” he says. “What is needed is more international competition.”

And while it’s good in many ways to have separate train companies, it means Europe has a fragmented railway network in which passengers end up travelling with a collection of tickets.
Here is a round-up of ten lesser-known European rail operators. I have omitted fares because of complexity. There are myriad prices depending on routing and when you book, but as a rough guide, first class rail will be cheaper than a flexible air fare.

1. Italo

While the UK’s open-access firms survive on hand-me-down stock from British Rail, in Italy it’s quite the opposite. Italo operates Alstom AGV high-speed trains that are, according to the publicity blurb, “il treno piu modern d’Europa”.

This is not entirely surprising seeing as Italo is 20 per cent owned by SNCF (French Railways). One of Europe’s few open-access firms, it plies Italy’s main north-south rail routes. Services run from Turin, Milan and Venice in the north via Rome to Naples and Salerno in the south. There are up to 14 trains a day each way. Milan-Rome takes three hours, while Firenze-Rome takes 81 minutes. The main en route stops are Padua, Bologna and Florence.

Unlike state-owned Trenitalia, some services may operate from alternative main stations. These include Milan Garibaldi and Rome Tiburtina. These may or may not prove convenient depending on the location of your hotel and meetings.

Onboard accommodation consists of Club (first class), Prima (business) and Smart (standard class). Meals are served at seat in premium classes but at an extra cost.

2. Thalys

Thalys’s high-speed rail network can be billed as one of Northern Europe’s most useful for the businessperson. Its clever trains (these can cope with differing power and signalling systems in four countries) are modelled on France’s TGVs. They operate regularly between Paris Nord, Amsterdam and Cologne. The main en route calling points are Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol airport.

You can whizz from Paris to Brussels in 82 minutes, with Paris-Amsterdam taking three hours 16 minutes, and Brussels-Amsterdam one hour 49 minutes. There are two classes – Comfort 1 (first class with free meals) or Comfort 2 (standard).

3. TGV Lyria

This service-minded Franco-Swiss TGV links Paris Gare de Lyon with various cities in Switzerland including Basel, Zurich, Lausanne and Geneva. There are regular departures to Zurich and Geneva throughout the day. Timings are competitive with air – Paris-Geneva takes just over three hours with Paris-Zurich taking a little over four hours. Trains are two-class, and meals are served free in first.;

4. Elipsos

There’s nothing quite like the Elipsos “hotel train” linking Paris Austerlitz with Madrid Chamartin and Barcelona de Franca. But sample it while you can because this service may cease at the end of October if, as expected, the new high-speed line opens.

Elipsos is a 50/50 joint venture between France’s SNCF and Spain’s Renfe. Book the best onboard accommodation and you will get something akin to hotel standards. Plus, there’s a proper – some might say “old-fashioned” – restaurant car serving both breakfast and dinner.

Each train (one service goes to Madrid, the other to Barcelona) leaves Paris in the evening to arrive the next morning. The trip to the Spanish capital takes 15 hours 30 minutes, while Barcelona can be reached in 11 hours 30 minutes. Trains run over the “classic lines”.

Elipsos trains comprise unique Spanish Talgo rolling stock, scaled-down carriages specially designed for an easy gauge change at the border as Spanish classic track differs from that elsewhere.

Book Club Class accommodation (which includes breakfast) or, better still, splash out on a Grand Class ticket, which also throws in dinner along with a cabin equipped with a shower and toilet.;

5. OBB Railjet

The Austrians are a canny lot. Rather than spend billions of euros on building new high-speed lines and acquiring a fleet of complex trainsets, OBB Railjet uses tried-and-tested technology at a fraction of the cost.

Railjet operates with Siemens rolling stock and locomotives. Trains run at a top speed of 230 km/ph.

Services operate over core routes – Munich-Salzburg-Vienna-Budapest and Zurich-Innsbruck-Salzburg-Vienna-Budapest. Vienna Westbahnhof to Budapest Keleti takes about three hours and Vienna Westbahnhof to Munich four hours. From December next year, there are plans for Railjet to operate a new route, Graz-Vienna-Prague.

You have a choice of first, business or standard class accommodation, and trains also come with a restaurant car. Meals at your seat are provided in first and business class (for a fee).;

6. HKX

Germany’s main open-access operator is the Hamburg-Koln Express. It plies the important business route between Cologne and Hamburg, calling at Dusseldorf and Essen. There are three trains a day with a journey time of four hours 20 minutes.

Unlike Italy’s Italo, the Cologne-Hamburg express is a value-for-money product, using ex-Deutsche Bahn trains. It’s one-class only and operates far less frequently than Deutsche Bahn, but it’s price competitive.

7. City Night Line

The DB-owned City Night Line operates overnight sleeper trains covering Northern and Central Europe. Book the best accommodation, which, according to’s Mark Smith, is Deluxe.

This can be found either on trains formed of Comfortline or double-deck rolling stock. If travelling on the latter, then Smith suggests going for a compartment on the upper deck.

The Comfortline coaches operate on selected routes – these include Paris to Berlin or Zurich, and Amsterdam to Munich or Prague. Double-decker stock can be found on routes such as Zurich to Hamburg or Berlin, Basel to Copenhagen, and Munich to Berlin or Hamburg.

Deluxe compartments are fitted with a shower and toilet. On the double-deckers they occupy the upper level, which affords a great view during the day. Breakfast is provided free. Typical journey times: Amsterdam-Prague 14 hours 25 minutes, Munich-Berlin nine hours 51 minutes, Paris Est-Berlin 12 hours 23 minutes.;

8. TGV Paris to Milan and Turin

This stand-alone service provides a fast, useful link between France’s capital and two of Italy’s main business cities. The big attraction here is the scenic views as the TGV traverses the French Alps on the section past Lyon.

Paris Gare de Lyon to Turin Porta Susa takes just over five hours 30 minutes, then the train moves onwards to Milan Porta Garibaldi, arriving seven hours ten minutes after leaving Paris. Trains run thrice daily and there are two classes. Meals (at a charge) are served at seat in first class.

9. Frecciarossa

This is Trenitalia’s riposte to Italo. The high-speed trains link the cities of northern Italy, such as Turin and Milan, with Salerno in the south via Bologna, Florence and Rome.

Services operate frequently – there are 20 a day between Milan Centrale and Rome Termini, covering the trip (not far short in mileage terms of London-Edinburgh) in about three hours nonstop.

With such frequency and speed, it’s a wonder that anyone takes the plane at all. Stopping services also offer fast transits, the popular Florence SMN-Rome Termini sector being accomplished in around 90 minutes.

Somewhat confusingly, there are four separate classes – Executive (first class), which offers at-seat meals, Business with free drinks but meals taken in the restaurant car, Premium and Standard where passengers take meals in the restaurant. All meals are at extra cost.;

10. Cisalpino

This famous trans-Alpine service links Zurich and Geneva with Milan. It is currently operated by conventional mainline rolling stock but from 2015 will be upgraded with modern Alstom tilting trains and, at the same time, will have the Cisalpino branding restored.

I include it here because not only is it one of the most scenic rail trips in Europe but it also provides an inexpensive (compared with air travel) link between Zurich, Geneva and northern Italy. Trains from Zurich to Milan Centrale (three hours 41 minutes) cross the Alps via the Gotthard Tunnel, while those running from Geneva pass through the Simplon Tunnel in three hours 53 minutes.