Rail steps up a gear - but are there delays on the horizon?
It was a week that saw the completion of two major rail projects.
At long last - and that is the only phrase that can be used - the UK completed the upgrade of its West Coast Main Line. The improvement of this vital rail spine running from London to Glasgow via Birmingham and Manchester has taken ten years and cost £9bn.
But it should bring significant improvements for the long suffering passengers. These include more trains and hence more seats and, perhaps just as important for the business traveller, shorter journey times.
Network Rail which supervised the project, said there would be 1,151 extra services a day, amounting to 60,000 extra seats a day. This included 30-50% more services between London and cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool. For example, the services between London and Manchester will be increased from two to three an hour.
Journey times will also be cut. The 125mph trains will reduce journeys from London to Birmingham by 31 minutes to 1hr 12 minutes while times from London to Glasgow will drop by 56 minutes to 4hrs 10 minutes. London-Manchester will fall by 43 minutes to 1hr 58 minutes.
For business travellers this could make a significant difference to whether they travel by air, rail or car.
The second project to be completed is the high speed section between Milan and Bologna in Italy. This €6.9bn project is of a different scale to the British upgrade as the high speed trains here will be travelling at 350kph, vastly faster than 125mph. When the track is complete, the journey between Milan and Rome will be three hours.
Currently, with the new opening, it is four hours while the Milan-Bologna has been reduced from 1hr 43 minutes to 65 minutes.
A three hour journey will put it in direct competition with the three airlines, including the newly rescued Alitalia, which run services between Italy's financial and political capitals. This is certainly the aim of Mauro Moretti, ceo of Ferrovie dello Stato, the Italian national rail company, who has said he is aiming for 60% of the market within two years.
But if these two major steps forward have put a rosy glow on the cheeks of train companies, it may not last long.
As Mr Moretti was heralding the new high speed track, he was also penning a letter of protest with Hartmut Mehdorn, his opposite number at Deutsche Bahn (DB), the German national train operator to the EC.
The letter to Antonio Tajani accused SNCF, the French national rail company, of unfair competition and obstruction, a charge which has been rejected.
The Moretti-Mehdorn letter called for the opening of national passenger markets from January 1, 2012. It said that this open market whereby trains companies based in one country could also operate in other countries already existed in Italy, Germany, Denmark and the UK. But there were countries where it did not exist, a clear, if unnamed reference to France where SNCF has a monopoly.
The EC is already committed to liberalising international passenger traffic from January 1 2010. The Moretti-Mehdorn proposal would complement this.
The prospect of international liberalisation of passenger traffic has already seen airlines and rail companies manoeuvring for position. Air France KLM is involved in a feasibility study with the French transport conglomerate Veolia over the possible running of high speed train services. It is so far not clear whether AF KL plans this for just France or on a wider scale.
SNCF has bought a 20% stake in NTV, an Italian company which is planning to start its own high speed rail services in Italy in 2011.
There have also been reports that DB is planning to start a rival service to Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel although the Germans have denied this.
The Moretti-Mehdorn letter looks to be part of this manoeuvring for position as an era of change looms, in this case seeking to undermine SNCF's dominant position. If the liberalisation of 2010 works successfully, Europe could see the break up of old monopolies and passengers given a choice of which train company they travel with. This could lead to reduced fares and increased frequencies, at least on profitable routes. It could also see bitter battles as the monopolies fight to hold onto their ascendant positions.
When aviation was liberalised in Europe, new airlines sprang up to challenge the old legacy carriers on established routes and new routes also opened. Passengers in many cases enjoyed cuts in fares and a choice of carrier. Now in the current tough times, airlines are going through a period of rationalisation and consolidation.
It could be that the rail industry is just starting on this same long and complex process.