The Wilhelm Tell Express

Paddle steamer moored at Fluelen - photo by Rob McFarland

Paddle steamer moored at Fluelen - photo by Rob McFarland

Part of me wants us to be late. After all I’m in Switzerland, home to the most frighteningly efficient public transport system in the world; a country that measures just 350 kilometres by 220 kilometres but which has 5000 kilometres of railways and 13,000 kilometres of bus routes; a nation where timetables are so well co-ordinated you never have to wait more than 10 minutes for a connection; a seemingly mythical land where if a train is more than three minutes late, it’s announced as delayed.

But we’re not. At precisely 9.12am, the Schiller paddle-steamer glides away from her dock and sets off across the still waters of Lake Lucerne. And if that wasn’t disappointing enough, the sun is shining, the water is twinkling and I’m surrounded by some of Europe’s most stunning scenery. Damn Swiss show-offs.

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Europe by train

Thalys and Eurostar in Paris - photo by Rob McFarland

Thalys and Eurostar in Paris - photo by Rob McFarland

It sounds like a challenge from Mission: Impossible – travel more than 2500 kilometres, visiting nine cities in four countries in seven days. And all without setting foot on a plane.

In most continents such a feat would be impossible but Europe has a high-speed rail network that is the envy of the world. From Paris its tendrils reach up into Britain, Germany and the Netherlands and down into the south of Spain and Italy. Overnight trains mean you can leave London one afternoon and wake up the following morning in Venice. Or Madrid or Milan or Rome.

The advantages of rail over air travel are compelling. No more trekking to airports miles outside the city. No more liquid/gel/clear plastic bag shenanigans at customs. Trains depart from and arrive in city centres. They’re rarely late. They have comfortable seats, tables and dining cars. Some even have special family areas and Wi-Fi access. And, of course, you get to see some of the country you’re whizzing through at 300km/h.

On paper, there seems to be little contest. But what’s it really like? Is it really that easy? Do the trains run on time? Are they clean? And, most importantly of all, does it feel like a holiday? On a whistle-stop tour of Britain, Belgium, France and Switzerland, I found out.

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