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High-speed rail

TGV "Réseau" class, Marseille St-Charles station
TGV "Réseau" class, Marseille St-Charles station
This page is about high speed rail in general. There is also the specific British High Speed Train.

High-speed rail is public transport by rail with a possible speed above 200 km/h (125 miles per hour).

Typically high speed trains travel at top service speeds of between 250 km/h (150 mph) to 300 km/h (180 mph). Although the world speed record for a wheeled train was set in 1990 by a French TGV which reached a speed of 515 km/h (320 mph), the experimental Japanese magnetic levitation train has reached 581 km/h (361 mph).



The International Union of Railways' high speed task force provides definitions of high speed rail travel [1], but note that there is no one single definition of the term, but rather a combination of elements—new or upgraded track, rolling stock, operating practices—that lead to high speed rail operations.


Railways were the first form of mass transportation, and until the invention of the motorcar in the early 20th century, had an effective monopoly on land transport. In the decades after World War II, improvements in automobiles, highways, and aircraft made those means practical for a greater portion of the population than previously. In Europe and Japan emphasis was given to rebuilding the railways after the war. In the United States, emphasis was given to building a huge national highway system (at great expense and with public funds) and airports. Urban mass transport systems in the USA were largely neglected.

The world's first true "high-speed train" was Japan's Tokaido Shinkansen, officially launched in 1964. The "Series 0" Shinkansen, built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, achieved speeds of 200 km/h on the Tokyo-Nagoya-Kyoto-Osaka route.

High-speed rail was conceived as an attempt to win back railway passengers who had been lost to other means of travel; in most cases it has been quite successful to this end.

High-speed trains vs. automobiles or airplanes

There are constraints on the growth of the highway and air travel systems, widely cited as traffic congestion, or capacity limits. Airports have limited capacity to serve passengers during peak travel times, as do highways. High speed rail, which has potentially very high capacity on its fixed corridors, offers the promise of relieving congestion on the other systems. Prior to World War II conventional passenger rail was the principal means of intercity transport. Passenger rail services have lost their primary role in transport since, due to the small proportion of journeys made by rail.

High-speed rail has the advantage over automobiles in that it can move passengers at speeds far faster than those possible by car, while also avoiding congestion. For most journeys that don't connect city centre to city centre, the door to door travel time and the total cost of high speed rail can be comparable to that of driving, a fact often mentioned by critics of HST. However, supporters argue that journeys by HST are less strenuous and more productive than car journeys.

While high-speed trains generally do not travel as fast as aircraft, they have advantages over air travel for relatively short distances. When traveling less than about 650 km (400 miles), the process of checking in and going through security screening at airports can cause significant delays. Trains can be boarded much more quickly, eliminating the speed advantage of air travel. Rail lines also permit far greater capacity and frequency of service than what is possible with aircraft.

Target areas for high-speed train

The early target areas identified by the French, the Japanese, and the Americans are connections between pairs of large nearby cities. In France this was ParisLyon, in Japan TokyoOsaka, and in the USA the proposals are in high density areas, with the only high speed rail service in the Northeast Corridor between BostonNew YorkWashington, D.C. This was accomplished with minimal expense as the existing railroad infrastructure, built in the 1930s, was then the most advanced in the world.

Market segmentation has principally focused on the business travel market. The French focus on business travelers is reflected in the nature of their rail cars (including the all-important bar-car). Pleasure travel is a secondary market, though many of the French extensions connect with vacation beaches on the Atlantic and Mediterranean, as well as all major amusement parks. In fact, Friday evenings are the peak time for TGV (Metzler, 1992). The system has lowered prices on long distance travel to compete more effectively with air services, and as a result some cities within an hour of Paris by TGV have become commuter communities, thus increasing the market while restructuring land use. A side effect of the first high-speed rail lines in France was the opening up of previously isolated rural regions to fast development. Some later high-speed lines where planned primarily for this purpose, such as the MadridSevilla line and the proposed AmsterdamGroningen line.

Five years after construction began on the line, the first Japanese high speed rail line opened on the eve of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, connecting the capital with Osaka. This Olympic target date clearly reflects mercantilist interests in the promotion of modern Japan to the world. The first French high-speed rail line, the LGV, was opened in 1981 by SNCF, the French rail agency, also after many years of planning, beginning in 1966 and construction beginning in 1976. The opening ceremonies were a significant event, being reported internationally, but not associated with a major showpiece such as a World's fair or Olympic Games.

High-speed trains in Europe

The earliest high speed train deployed in Europe was the French TGV, which originally ran on the specially constructed LGV line between Lyon and Paris. The TGV network gradually spread out to other cities, and even went into other countries - such as Switzerland. Trains that cross national boundaries may need to have special characteristics, such as multiple power supplies. This means that not all TGVs are the same, and there are interoperability considerations.

Later the TGV network was also extended with lines down to Bordeaux and Marseille, and faster running trains. Rather than have separate lines from Paris, towns in Britanny are reached via a relatively short detour—it being argued that the trains run fast enough that the extra distance causes little real delay on the long distance travel between Paris and Bordeaux, and this routing allows additional service to Brittany.

The German ICE train was deployed well after the TGV network was established, and has comparable speeds.

The Dutch HSL-Zuid line are being built to connect the Netherlands with Belgium and France. It will carry bothThalys (modified TGV) as well as domestic high speed trains.

The Eurostar trains which run through the Eurotunnel between the United Kingdom and France and Belgium are modified versions of the TGV trains, which are capable of running on different power systems and also with seven different signalling modes. Eurostar trains have bogies between carriages, and typical operating units have 18 carriages, so there is the possibility of significant passenger capacity between London and other European cities. A fully loaded train of 794 passengers is equivalent to several large aircraft (with the exception of the Airbus A380, which can theoretically carry 800 passengers).

In Italy the 254 km long line between Rome and Florence was inaugurated in 1992, allowing speeds of up to 250 km/h. The journey time between the two cities is 1h36 and the trains average about 200 km/h. The service is carried out by Eurostar Italia trains. These are different from the Eurostar trains operating to the United Kingdom.

Switzerland did not have a tilting train until May 28, 2000, when along with the Fahrplanwechsel (change of train schedules) the ICN (InterCity Neigezug, or InterCity Tilting Train) came into being, first running from Geneva through Biel/Bienne, Grenchen South, Zürich, Winterthur through to St. Gallen. The ICN is now used on several routes. Speeds on the ICN can reach all the way up to 200 km/h. As Swiss rail tracks are full of curves, and as the ICN is a tilting train, it could be considered the fastest Swiss train on Swiss tracks.

The Alta Velocidad Española AVE high speed rail system in Spain is currently being constructed. High speed trains have been running on the Madrid-Sevilla route since 1992. Should the aims of the ambitious AVE construction program be met, by 2010, Spain will have 7000 km of high speed trains linking all provincial cities to Madrid in under 4 hours and all cities within 6 hours of Barcelona.

By 2007, the fastest commercial trains in operation will be moving passengers between Barcelona and Madrid at a top speed of 350 km/h (traveling the 600 km between the two cities in only 2.5 hours). Three corporations have or will build trains for the Spanish high speed rail network: Spanish Talgo, French Alstom, and German Siemens.

High-speed trains in the U.S.

In some ways, high-speed efforts around the world can be traced to the streamliners that cris-crossed the United States in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. However, several factors contributed to the stagnation of rail transportation in the country just as Europe and Japan were pushing forward. There has been a resurgence of interest in recent decades, with many plans being examined for high-speed rail across the country. However, current service remains relatively limited.

The major passenger carrier in the United States, Amtrak, has been operating Acela trains between Boston and Washington since 2001. These trains tilt, because of curves along the track, and the top speed is 150 mph (240 km/h). This maximum speed might not be considered fast enough for this train to be designated a high speed train, though the average speeds suggest that it should be. The average speed from Washington to Boston is about 82 mph (132 km/h): 5 h 30 min for 450 miles (724 km).

Depending on how it is defined, high-speed rail in the United States today remains in an early, conceptual stage. The United States efforts have been multi-pronged. Various states have promoted study and design of high speed rail lines, and six corridors have been designated by US DOT for study:

The Clinton Administration proposed a High Speed Rail Development Act (1993) to study the issues involved and provide seed money. Money was set aside in ISTEA (1991) for mag-lev development, and proposals for deployment have been made in Orlando, Florida and Texas, but there is still no operating maglev in revenue earning passenger service in the United States. Amtrak's northeast corridor has been electrified and has seen elimination of grade crossings.

In terms of its top-down planning, the development of high-speed rail in the United States borrows conceptually from the interstate highway system. Typically modes emerge without either significant or central planning at the outset. Examples include air travel, highways, and rail. Later, central planning is tacked on, as when the government established specific trans-continental routes, or began funding airports or the interstate highways. In all likelihood this probably confirms high speed rail's role as a successor to conventional rail rather than holding status as a new mode on its own.

Operationally, the systems are largely adapted from conventional rail systems, with similar labor organization and ownership in Japan and France and similar architectures in many other respects.

High-speed trains in Canada

Canada placed some early hopes in high-speed trains with the United Aircraft Turbo train, in the 1960s. Running on CN, the Talgo-inspired articulated tilt-train achieved speeds as high as 200 km/h in regular service, but for most of its service life (marred with lengthy interruptions to address conception problems), it ran at a more conventional 160 km/h. A similar, but shorter train was also experimented with in the United States.

Beginning in the 1970s, a consortium of several companies started to study the LRC, which was a more conventional approach to high-speed rail, in having separate cars rather than being an articulated train. Pulled by a conventional-technology diesel-electric locomotives designed for 200 km/h normal operating speed, it entered full-scale service in 1981 for VIA Rail Canada, linking cities in the QuébecWindsor corridor, but at speeds never exceeding 170 km/h (mandated by line signalling).

The troublesome Bombardier LRC locomotives were eventually all retired by 2000, replaced by more conventional diesel-electric locomotives manufactured by General Motors and General Electric. The LRC is the oldest tilt-train that is still operational to this day.

Even though in the US Amtrak has invested enormous amounts of money in electrifying the New Haven-Boston portion of the Northeast Corridor and outfitting itself with sleek Acela trains, it is VIA Rail that operates the fastest scheduled passenger train in North-America, train 66, which runs the 520 kilometers between Toronto and Dorval in 3 hours 44 minutes, an average speed of 140 km/h.

High-speed trains in Japan

In 1967, after the Tokaido Shinkansen was deployed, a second line, work began on the Sanyo Shinkansen. The recognition of the inter-relationship between land development and the high speed rail network led, in 1970, to the enaction in Japan of a law for the construction of a nationwide Shinkansen railway network. By 1973, the Transport Minister approved construction plans for five additional lines and basic plans for twelve others. Despite the approval, financial considerations intervened; the cost of the five lines (five trillion yen, or fifty billion US dollars at 100 yen to the dollar, a somewhat hopeful exchange rate), combined with the oil shock and recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s resulted in their delay until 1989. Ironically, high oil prices, which should increase the relative demand for non-oil based transportation such as high speed rail, delayed their construction.

The new Japanese lines are also not "Full Shinkansen", with all of the characteristics of high speed rail. Rather they are mixed, and thus composed of less expensive technology, combining narrow gauge and standard gauge lines on the same structures. New structures allow for eventual upgrade, but existing narrow gauge structures are kept in places, allowing the bullet train to use them, but not at the higher speeds. As with its inauguration, the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano Japan were a target for the opening of a rail line extension: Hokuriku Shinkansen (Tokyo to Nagano) was opened under this scheme just in time.

Within Japan, some of the most significant changes in the mode's growth phase has been the break-up and privatization of the rail system, begun in 1987. The hope is that restructuring leads to more efficient and profitable methods in the passenger rail sector. Incremental improvements to the high speed rail technology are continuously being undertaken, and the network continues to be expanded. As an example of improvements, the travel time from Tokyo to Shin Osaka (the first route opened), has decreased from 4 hours in 1964 to 2 hours and 30 minutes.

High-speed trains in other parts of Asia

There is now a high speed train line in Korea; KTX, and China has plans for high speed trains based on TGV technology. Taiwan is constructing its high speed railway to connect Taipei and Kaohsiung using Shinkansen technology. It is scheduled to begin revenue service in October, 2005.

High-speed trains in Australia

Using the definitions outlined Australia has no high speed trains. However, it does now have a fast service using a tilting train which operates between Brisbane and Cairns, operated by Queensland Rail (QR).


Much of the technology behind high-speed rail is an improved application of existing technology. By building a new rail infrastructure with 20th century engineering, including elimination of constrictions such as roadway at-grade crossings, frequent stops, a succession of curves and reverse curves, and not sharing the right-of-way with freight or slower passenger trains, higher speeds (250–300 km/h) are maintained. A record speed of 515 km/h has been run using TGV technology. Thus it's conventional and compatible with existing systems. The French TGV trains typically run over older track at standard speeds combined with segments on new tracks, to provide an overall high speed, one seat journey to many destinations.

In France, the cost of construction is minimized by adopting steeper grades rather than building tunnels and viaducts. Because the lines are dedicated to passengers, grades of 3.5%, rather than the previous maximum of 1–1.5% for mixed traffic, are used. Possibly more expensive land is acquired in order to build straighter lines which minimize line construction as well as operating and maintenance costs. In other countries high speed rail was built without those economies so that the railway can also support other traffic, such as freight.

Existing high-speed rail systems

TGV family

ICE family

Shinkansen family

Talgo family

  • Talgo 350 (Spain)
  • Talgo 200 (Spain) (able to travel at 200 km/h on broad and standard gauge track)

Tilting trains

Magnetic levitation


  • Intercity 125/British Rail Class 43 - introduced in late 1970s Britain, often called the High Speed Train or HST, was the fastest train in the country for some while at 125mph

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