High-speed trains are a common sight in Europe and Asia. Credit: Shutterstock

The Fastest Trains in Europe

With the premiere of Bullet Train in July, we look at the past, present and future of Europe’s high-speed rail

by Shandana A. Durrani

“Five assassins find themselves on a fast-moving bullet train from Tokyo to Morioka with only a few stops in between. They discover their missions are not unrelated to each other. The question becomes: who will make it off the train alive and what awaits them at the terminal station?” That’s Deadline.com’s synopsis of the upcoming thriller, Bullet Train, starring Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock.

While, thankfully, you won’t be chased by assassins on most high-speed trains, it’s still a thrilling ride. Outside of Asia, Europe has a wide array of high-speed trains, taking passengers from anywhere from Lyon to Paris, Milan to Naples and beyond. And with updated routes and revamped trains on the horizon, guests can expect to avoid being zip-tied to their seats or hunted down carriages like Pitt in the movie trailer. 


While China and Japan have the fastest trains on record anywhere in the world, Europe is not far behind. From Spain’s AVE trains that travel nearly 200 MPH to Germany’s ICE trains, which clocks in at nearly 186 MPH on average, visitors and locals can reduce their carbon footprint dramatically by choosing these high-speed trains instead of flights.


“[Renfe’s high-speed trains are] a fast, safe and environmentally sustainable mode of transport for medium and long distances,” says Francisco Arteaga, AVE and Long Distance Business Director at Renfe. “It’s a service that represents not only a way to travel quickly from one point to another, but also…to experience an unforgettable trip.”

Conceived in the 1930s in Japan, the first bullet train—the “super express of dreams”—set off from Tokyo in 1964 to feed a need for speed and efficiency in the Post-War boom. The train was so popular with passengers that Japan extended the Osaka to Okayama San’yō Shinkansen line to Hakata a decade later. Other nations followed Japan’s example. France became the first European country to adopt high-speed rail in the 1980s. Germany, Spain and Italy also joined the fray and saw an uptick in customers as a result.

“Renfe celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2021 and this year, we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the arrival of the AVE,” says Arteaga. “Since that first connection between Seville and Madrid…the AVE, in particular, is a success story and an emblem of Spain that defines the character and values ​​of our country.”

The European Commission has huge goals for high-speed rail. According to official documents, the proposed Trans-European Transport Network plans separate tracks for high-speed and regular rail, railway construction in smaller cities, improvements on current high-speed tracks, and more routes by 2040. 

“We are currently working in a double scenario. On the one hand, the implementation of services in new destinations and corridors, such as Galicia, Castilla y León or the north of the peninsula. And, on the other, in the consolidation of the launch of new products such as Avlo [Renfe’s low-cost high-speed train with vending machines and special services for persons with disabilities], which is to play a major role in the context of liberalisation,” says Arteaga.

While I haven’t been lucky enough to take an AVE train (yet), SCNF’s high-speed train from Paris to Provence is one of my favourite routes in all of Europe. The TGV INOUI journey to Avignon takes less than three hours, saves more than 70% in carbon emissions over planes and if you get an upper-deck seat, you’ll be afforded views of verdant countryside, from the woodlands and lakes of Morvan Regional Natural Park in Burgundy to the Rhône capital of Lyon—the birthplace of cinema ala the Lumiere brothers—to the former Papal capital of Avignon. Use Avignon as a base to explore lavender fields, bucolic wineries and farm-to-table restaurants. Or check out our handy guide to Provence for more info.


Don’t let Brad Pitt’s situation in Bullet Train deter you: high-speed rail is the fastest, safest and most comfortable way to see Europe. Woosh!