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Dear fellow travellers
Sunday morning... and four weeks from today much of Europe will awaken to new train timetables. Each year in December, new schedules come into effect across the continent. The big day this year is Sunday 14 December.
There is already a developing media bubble focusing on services which will be axed. And we've read many press comments mourning the demise of Europe's rail services. Yet the reality is that, across much of Europe, rail travel is a rising star. Passenger numbers are up, and each December a raft of new services are introduced.
New links and enhanced connections don't always get the publicity they deserve. So, especially for Letter from Europe readers, we offer a summary of positive features in the new schedules.
This year, the highlight of the new timetables is on routes to and from Vienna, but there is also plenty of other good news from across Europe. Here are a dozen developments worth noting.
All around Vienna
1. A new direct daytime train will run from Vienna to Belgrade and vice versa. With over two dozen stops along the way, this new link doesn't win any prizes for speed, but it is a useful new service that will be valued by many travellers.
2. There will be a new direct service from Debrecen to Vienna and back, allowing residents of Hungary's second-largest city to make a day trip to the Austrian capital. The schedule allows for over six hours in Vienna.
3. The station at Vienna Airport (called Flughafen Wien) will be served by long-distance trains for the first time, with sleek ICEs running directly from the airport to Linz, Passau and beyond. From 14 December, you'll be able to board one of these new services and travel directly to Cologne, Hamburg, Frankfurt and many other German cities.
4. Vienna will secure a new direct daytime train to Poland's Baltic coast. This will be a daily EuroCity service, taking just under eleven hours to travel from Vienna to the port of Gdynia. The new train will also serve the key Baltic tourist destinations of Gdansk and Sopot.
Night train links
5. A new overnight train from Budapest to Sofia becomes the first long-distance train service to be routed via the New Europe Bridge - that's the new Danube river crossing, just opened last year, between Calafat (Romania) and Vidin (Bulgaria).
6. Düsseldorf secures a new direct overnight train to Vienna. This train will also transport cars.
New Lille-Geneva service
7. The introduction of a new year-round direct service from Lille Europe to Geneva will be particularly welcomed by rail travellers from England who have hitherto normally travelled via Paris to reach Geneva. Changing trains at Lille will cut out that cross-city transfer in Paris. The new service will run four days each week in each direction and is timed to give good connections in Lille with Eurostar services to and from London St Pancras.
8. The only direct trains from Amsterdam to Brussels of late have been the high-speed Thalys services which require advance reservation. That changes on 14 December with the introduction of an hourly InterCity service on the route. It will along the way serve both Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and Brussels National Airport.
9. The direct daytime EuroCity train from Prague to Warsaw and vice versa is restored. Latterly, the only direct train between the two cities has been the overnight service. The new daytime train runs at civilised times (leaving around ten in the morning in each direction). It carries a restaurant car, which will make the eight-hour journey all the more pleasant.
10. Prague will move a little closer to Vienna with fast Railjet trains linking the two cities. The new trains will run every two hours, cutting 39 minutes off the existing journey time. From 14 December, it will take just 4 hrs 11 mins to speed from Prague to Vienna.
Cruising the Riviera
11. There will be a new once-daily direct train from Marseille to Milan (and vice versa) serving the major resorts of the Côte d'Azur (France) and the Riviera di Ponente (Italy). This new Thello train service will thus give a direct link from Marseille to Italian resorts without the need to change trains along the way.
History at Rainhill
12. The English cities of Liverpool and Manchester will benefit from improved services between the two cities following the completion of a major programme of electrification in the region which includes the route through Rainhill. It was on this stretch of line in 1829 that the locomotive trials were held which led to Stephenson's Rocket being chosen as the preferred engine for the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The historic railway at Rainhill has thus seen three different generations of motive power: 19th-century steam, which was eclipsed by 20th-century diesel which in turn now gives way to 21st-century electric traction.
Best of the rest
Across Europe, there are also minor rearrangements to local and regional train services - and sometimes a more extensive recasting of timetables. Amid the small print, we've noted a number of useful improvements in cross-border connections. So the Czech town of Cheb, for example, will now have a thrice-daily direct train to Gera (in Thuringia) and a once-daily direct train to Regensburg (in Bavaria). The towns of Spa (Belgium) and Aachen (Germany) secure a new hourly train between them.
We have looked here only at new services which debut with the 14 December timetable change. Looking further ahead into 2015, there are more positive developments to follow. In early May, for example, Eurostar will launch a new year-round service from London to the Rhône Valley and Provence.
For regular rail news, you may find European Rail News of interest. For real devotees of rail travel in Europe, the monthly European Rail Timetable is an invaluable resource. Each new issue is packed full of detailed timetables for services across Europe. Each issue also has a Route of the Month supplied by hidden europe.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)