Planes v fast trains: 'tortoise' and the air

Special report

Louise Southerden compares plane and train travel on the route from Paris to Amsterdam.

Train travel is the new black. On some European routes, such as Paris to Brussels, flights have been phased out altogether and it's not hard to see why. Europe's trains are, on the whole, clean, comfortable and punctual.

For journeys of less than four hours, high-speed trains such as the TGV (which travels at up to 320km/h) can be faster than planes, particularly when you include the time spent getting to the airport, checking in, passing through security and waiting at the departure gate. Trains usually arrive in the city centre instead of the outskirts, where airports often are, saving taxi and shuttle fares to a final destination.

You don't have to remove liquids from your hand luggage when you travel by train, luggage doesn't have to be weighed and train passes offer the freedom of flexible travel dates and discounts on accommodation and attractions.

Staying on the ground has the advantages of scenery and the use of electronic devices as soon as you've boarded. And you'll also be travelling "green". Rail Europe says high-speed trains generate 96 per cent less carbon dioxide than other modes of travel. Some trains, such as the Eurostar, which links Britain with France and Belgium, are carbon neutral due to offsetting (at no extra cost to the traveller).

Here we compare a journey from Paris to Amsterdam by plane on Air France with the renovated Thalys train, which has travelled high-speed all the way on this route since late 2009.


Plane Takes one hour and 15 minutes (direct), plus check-in 40 minutes before departure (if travelling with luggage) or 20 minutes before departure (no luggage), plus pre-boarding security check (for bags; there's no passport control between France and the Netherlands). Total time: about 2½ hours. There are 12 flights a day.


Train Takes three hours 18 minutes (direct), plus boarding (10-15 minutes before departure; platforms close two minutes before departure). Total time: about 3½ hours. There are 44 trains a day.


Plane $463.20 (premium economy) or $766 (premium affaires, also known as business class), including taxes, plus a $20 online credit-card booking fee. (There is no economy class available on this sector.)

Train $110 second class (called Comfort 2) or $123 first class (called Comfort 1), plus $5 online booking fee.


Plane Seats in the Airbus A321 are 45 centimetres wide, all face forward, recline and have a reading light and tray table. There are toilets on board. Carry-on baggage limit is 12 kilograms. Checked baggage: two or three items, each weighing up to 23 kilograms for premium economy and business class, respectively.

Train Seats are 55 centimetres wide in Comfort 2, 65 centimetres wide in Comfort 1; some seats face forward, some backwards. Renovated 18 months ago, Thalys trains have new features in both classes, such as individual seat lights, wide armrests, wool-velvet seat coverings and space for mobile phones. Each carriage has toilets at one end and luggage storage at the other. Luggage allowance is two suitcases and one other piece (no weight limit), which can be stored on overhead racks, between back-to-back seats or at the end of the carriage.

Food and beverages

Plane Beverages including alcohol and a snack are part of the fare.

Train In Comfort 2, meals and alcohol are available to buy at the bar, including salads, hot dishes, organic food and sandwiches. In Comfort 1, meals, including alcohol, are brought to your seat and are included in the fare.


Plane Inflight magazine (Air France Magazine or Holland Herald), French and international newspapers. No interactive entertainment provided on short flights.

Train An on-board magazine titled Thalyscope; newspapers and magazines are available free to Comfort 1 passengers.


Plane Electronic devices such as laptops can be used except during take-off and landing but there is no in-seat power source; mobile phones can't be used. No Wi-Fi internet access.

Train Mobile phones and laptops can be used at any time throughout the journey. Every seat on the Thalys has a 220-volt power point to recharge devices. Wi-Fi internet access (since 2008) is free in Comfort 1 and costs €6.50 ($9.20) an hour or €13 for unlimited time in Comfort 2. There is a talking area at the end of each carriage so the use of mobile phones doesn't disturb other passengers.

Costs and travel times are for a one-way flight from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Amsterdam Schiphol with Air France and a Thalys high-speed train from Paris Gare du Nord to Amsterdam on Friday, April 15.