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European trains are on right track

The Eurostar train pulled away from its terminal in London's Waterloo Station as smoothly as a Boeing 747 lifting off from Heathrow Airport. The image stuck in my mind, and several times during the three-hour trip to Paris I sleepily glanced out the window to be startled awake by the sight of green French or British countryside where I expected puffy white clouds.

Sleek-looking, smooth riding, comfortable and traveling at speeds of up to 186 miles per hour, Eurostar is the most technically advanced train in the world. And the Chunnel, the 31-mile-long and $15 billion tunnel under the English Channel that the Eurostar takes between Britain and France, is one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time.But to Americans used to problem-plagued Amtrak and under-funded local public transportation systems, western Europe's high-speed intercity trains are all pretty impressive, as memorable to many travelers as the Eiffel Tower, London Bridge or the Matterhorn. If American railroads sometimes seem not to have traveled very far from their mid-19th century beginnings, western Europe's railroads offer high-tech equipment and expanding service. They are on the fast track to the 21st century.

Things that work well often aren't very interesting, and the 20-minute-long Chunnel passage is as boring as going through any other long tunnel. In pre-Chunnel days, however, crossing the channel by ferry in bad weather could be so exciting that passengers were commonly terrified. I prefer being bored to scared.

Besides eliminating the possibility of seasickness (along with fear of drowning), Eurostar does the London-Paris trip in only three hours - a real boon to travelers. Until the Chunnel opened in October 1994, the rail-ferry-rail London-Paris trip took about 61/2 hours. And Eurostar service has shortened the London-Brussels trip by two hours and 15 minutes.

Even faster times are not far off. Upgrading of the track Euro-star travels over in Britain in the next few years is expected to shave off about 30 minutes, making the London-Paris run only 21/2 hours around the time the century turns.

The French National Railroads ushered in a new era in rail travel in 1981 with introduction of high speed TGV (Tres Grand Vitesse, meaning Very Great Speed) service on the southeast route from Paris. Using dedicated track, the TGV averaged 160 miles per hour. Other TGV lines with higher speeds have since been added.

Today, some 150 cities in France and neighboring Switzerland are served by TGV trains. The most recent addition to the TGV network is the Thalys, which this year began operating between Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.

To improve service on the southeast line that serves Lyon, France's second-largest city, French Railroads recently introduced double decker "duplex" coaches during peak travel periods. They don't go any faster than other coaches but carry more passengers and, I can attest, the sweeping view of the French countryside from their top deck more than makes up for a little swaying.

The Swiss railway system, one of the world's densest and most efficient, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year with commemorative events at historic railway stations and tunnels throughout the country. And some of those tunnels, such as the one through the Simplon Pass between Switzerland and Italy, were as remarkable achievements in their day as the Chunnel is in ours.

As an anniversary present to the many tourists who use its trains, the Swiss Federal Railways is giving an extra free rail day to purchasers of its various rail passes, as well as a 50 percent reduction for a companion when two people travel together on passes in October.

The Swiss railways introduced double-decker first- and second-class coaches on the St. Gallen-Zurich-Bern-Interlaken route. As part of its Rail 2000 upgrading program, the federal railways recently began Cisalpino service, using Italian-made Pendolino, or tilting trains, on the Geneva, Basel-Bern, and Zurich to Milan routes, reducing travel time by up to an hour.

Because of the tilting capability - which enables trains to bend into curves rather than having to slow down for them - the Cisalpino can travel Switzerland's scenic but twisting rail routes at up to 140 miles per hour. Some of my Cisalpino seatmates claimed the tilting made them feel dizzy, but my only complaint was that the windows weren't bigger so I could take in more of the glorious Alpine scenery sliding by.

Tilting trains of the Pendolino type are also adaptable to the twists and turns of the Northeastern U.S. coastline. Trains like the Cisalpino, but built in Quebec, are scheduled to go into service in the Northeast rail corridor at the end of 1999.

To really appreciate the density, flexibility and convenience of European train service, you need to use it the way Europeans do. For instance, you might take high-speed trains such as Euro-star or the TGV to cover long distances, then pick up a car at your destination. In many countries, notably Switzerland, train schedules mesh with other forms of public transportion such as buses, lake ferries, cable cars and mountain railways.

As foreign tourists, American visitors to Europe can buy a wide variety of discounted railroad passes and packages only sold outside of Europe. Passes can be bought from travel agencies or the North American marketing organizations of the railroads, Rail Europe and BritRail Travel International.

First of these passes to be sold in this country - and still the most famous - is the Eurailpass, one of 33 kinds of rail passes (most good only within one country) available from Rail Europe. Introduced in 1959, the Eurail-pass exposed many young American backpackers to the delights of rail travel in the days when "Europe on $5 a Day" was both the title of a best-selling guidebook and an actual possibility.

The Eurailpass is accepted by railroads of 17 continental countries and the Republic of Ireland.

For more information about European rail travel, call Rail Europe at (800) 438-7245 or BritRail at (888) 274-87245.