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High speed rail

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An AVE Class 102 (Talgo 350) high-speed train serving the Haramain line in Saudi Arabia. Observe the duck beak-shaped nose that gave the train its nickname, "Pato," which means 'duck' in Spanish.

High speed rail (HSR) is the platform on which some modern trains run on. While some trains use wheels, others employ magnetic levitation and electric propulsion, thereby eliminating friction and the number of moving parts. All trains are aerodynamically shaped in order to reduce air drag. Some share the same tracks as freight and low-speed trains. Others have their own tracks. High-speed trains are operational in Europe, North America, North Africa, East Asia, and the Middle East. Under some circumstances, they provide a viable alternative to air travel, driving, or taking a bus. Many high-speed trains are electrically powered, so it is possible for them to run entirely on renewable and nuclear energy.

Definitions of high-speed rail[edit]

There is no single authoritative definition of high-speed rail. The European Union defines high-speed trains to be those with sustained speeds above 200 km/h on upgraded legacy lines and in excess of 250 km/h on purpose built lines are the lower boundary for HSR.[1][2] In the United States, the Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Association (USDOT FRA) put forth the following definitions:[3]

  • Express high-speed rail: at least 150 mph (240 km/h) on grade separated tracks dedicated to passenger service
  • Regional high-speed rail: 110 - 150 mph (176 km/h to 240 km/h) on grade-separated tracks
  • Emerging high-speed rail: top speeds of 90 - 110 mph (144 km/h to 176 km/h)

One thing to keep an eye on is whether lines touted as HSR only briefly achieves their stated top speed, but generally run at much lower speeds (as is the case in many upgraded legacy lines), or whether, as seen in dedicated HSR systems (e.g. the Shinkansen or TGV), they generally operate at speeds well beyond 200 km/h. To achieve the latter, it's typically necessary for (dedicated) HSR to have relatively widely spaced stops (compared with more traditional rail systems) as the time needed to reach and brake from high speeds mandates long, straight, dedicated rail systems with distant stations (or a few clusters of stations followed by a long, uninterrupted journey). In reaping the benefits of HSR, journey time is important with a rule of thumb being that an inter-city journey time of around three and a half hours or less is the "tipping point" when rail begins to overtake regional flights in market share.[4][5][6][7][8]

Why does HSR need a new set of tracks?[edit]

This lovely caterpillar, the Transrapid 09 magnetically levitated monorail train, needs its specially designed tracks to run on.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, high-speed rail is often cheaper to build on entirely new alignment and exclusively for high-speed passenger operation (i.e. separated from freight and regional/commuter rail). This has several reasons. First of all the requirements of HSR and freight are almost exactly opposite. While trains going at 300 km/h have to have tracks as straight as possible (with curve radii in the range of 7 kilometers and more), slow freight trains can take a curvy route at the same slow speed as a straight one. On the other hand high-speed trains can climb rather steep slopes, as they by definition combine powerful engines and a low overall mass. The newest-generation German ICE for example is able to climb a 4% incline at full 300km/h which is quite some feat, considering rail traditionally measures steepness in parts per thousand. A freight train which is - almost by definition - rather heavy, and pulled only by one or two locomotives for several tens or even hundreds of cars, cannot even begin to climb steep slopes and the solutions that have been found for this problem (more locomotives, external engines pushing or pulling) all cost either time or money - two things transportation can ill afford to lose. Thus when going over a mountain or through a valley there are only three possibilities: Take the curvy route (which means trains can't run at high speeds), take the steep route (which means freight trains can't take it), or build a ton of bridges and tunnels (which can get expensive really fast). Most new HSR lines are built with that in mind and thus exclude freight already in the planning stage.[citation needed] A further reason why freight and HSR rarely share tracks is that it greatly lowers capacity. [note 1] Lower capacity of course means fewer trains, and fewer trains means less money for the company running the trains which in turn either makes tickets more expensive or threatens the financial viability of the whole project. Thus low-speed and high-speed operations have to be separated either geographically (through new sets of tracks) or temporarily (through freight running at night or in off-peak hours and high-speed trains running in the remaining parts of the day). Finally in most countries where HSR was built, the existing tracks were already congested and could not handle the (projected) increases in rail traffic. Thus building on a entirely new alignment with mostly greenfield/brownfield development was a rather easy conclusion. In a sense this is even true for the US as the freight railroads run most of their lines at capacity and are loath to share tracks with Amtrak already. This is unlikely to change if passenger trains start running at 200 mph instead of 79 mph.

Furthermore, some high-speed trains, such as the Transrapid magnetically levitated monorail train, are of peculiar designs and as such require specially designed tracks in order to function.

Countries operational high-speed railways[edit]


  • Morocco - Morocco inaugurated Africa's first high-speed railway in November 2018, connecting Tanger to Kénitra, in the Northern part of country facing the Atlantic. The Moroccan national operator (ONCF) is upgrading service further South to Rabat and Casablanca, on the Atlantic coast, for greater speed (220 km/h) and capacity. When completed, the time taken to gravel from Tanger to Casablanca will be more than halved, down to just two hours and ten minutes. Further upgrades are being planned, and, when completed, will cut travel time form Tanger to Casablanca down to just an hour and a half.[9] The Tanger-Kénitra line features the Avelia Euroduplex articulated bilevel train with one section dedicated to those with reduced mobility.[10]


Map of high-speed railways in East Asia.
The L0 Series from Japan holds the current record of the world's fastest train.
  • China - while China had virtually no high-speed railways at the beginning of the this century, construction has been taking place at a feverish pace. Several Chinese airlines have consequently seen their renevues plummeting and hardly any airline offers flights directly competing with HSR.[11] A high-speed railway linking Hong Kong to the rest of mainland China opened in 2018,[12] albeit with controversy over the political independence of the special administrative region. In any case, China currently has the world's largest high-speed rail network, 25,000 km and increasing.[13] China's high-speed rail is a combination of imported and indigenous technologies. China intends to complement its high-speed rail network with maglev trains capable of a top operational speed of 550 km/h (344 mph).[14]
  • Japan - The East Asian power had the first system and in fact had to build an entirely separate system as legacy trains ran on a different gauge. All Japanese HSR lines are now privatized and operate at a huge profit. The world's first bullet train entered service in Japan in 1964; the world's fastest train is the L0 series SCMaglev (superconducting magnetically levitated) train, demonstrated to be capable of reaching 603 km/h (375 mph).[15] In terms of costs per kilometer, coverage, and operating speeds, Japan's high-speed rail network is one of the best in the world.[16]
  • Saudi Arabia - the kingdom opened its first high-speed railway connecting Medina to Mecca, via Jeddah, bordering the Red Sea, in 2018. The Haramain Express line is expected to carry up to 60 million passengers a year and ease traffic congestion for Muslim pilgrims, who can now travel between Medina and Mecca in just two hours instead of the usual six by bus.[17] Uniquely, there are designated camel crossings.[18]
  • South Korea - The Seoul-Busan is now one of the most popular HSR routes in the world.[citation needed] Korea achieves the greatest population coverage at almost 45%.[16]
  • Taiwan - The Taiwan High-speed Rail (THSR, or Gāotiě) opened in 2007 and connects the various cities along the nation's West Coast, from Taipei in the North to Kaohsiung in the South. The railway is 345 kilometers (216 miles) long and has twelve stations.[19] Ridership was initially disappointing, leading to deficits, but steadily increased from 2012 onward. Free WiFi was introduced in 2017 but connectivity is rather poor at the moment due to the many tunnels that the train must go through. The THSR is one of the world's largest privately funded railway.[20]


Map of high-speed railways in Europe.
A Spanish AVE class 103 (Velaro E) on the Barcelona-Figueres High speed line.
  • Belgium - Belgium is served by four different rail operators, TGV, ICE, Eurostar and Thalys, each offering connections to neighboring countries. Eurostar trains in particular connect Brussels to London,[21] and has seen significant increases in passenger traffic.[22]
  • France - the first high-speed railway in France opened in 1983, connecting Paris and Lyon. More lines have been added ever since, mostly connecting the capital with other parts of of the country, and beyond, to Spain, Belgium and the U.K. Funding for the construction of new ones have been approved, and not all of them go to Paris. Prices, however, are high, making the service out of reach for many people and subsidies necessary. The French national railway company, SNCF, has been offering a low-cost high-speed rail service called Ouigo. But it has yet to make a profit.[23] In 2018, the SNCF ordered the brand new Avelia Horizon trains, featuring greater passenger capacity, improved energy efficiency, and less required maintenance. These trains also cost less than their predecessors.[24] The French high-speed rail network offers direct connections to neighboring countries, namely, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy.[21]
  • Germany - Intercity Express (ICE) trains entered service starting in 1991, connecting Hamburg to Altona, and was soon extended to all the way to Belgium and Switzerland. Germany's network is well-integrated with existing mass transit systems and legacy railways.[21] Germany's next generation of high-speed trains, ICE 4, will come equipped with the European Train Control System (ETCS), allowing for cross-border service, into neighboring Switzerland and Austria.[25]
  • Italy - Italy has an interesting history of high(er) speed rail, with the PendolinoWikipedia's W.svg tilting train[note 2] technology their most successful technology export on rails. High-speed railways branch out from Milan to Turin, Venice, Bologna, Rome, Naples, and Salerno and there are connections to Switzerland.[26] A rail line connecting Turin with Lyon, France, is being planned and is well supported by the residents of Turin, but it faces opposition from certain political and environmental groups.[27]
  • The Netherlands - Rotterdam and Amsterdam have been part of the cross-channel Eurostar service since April 2018, which has proven to be quite popular.[22]
  • Russia - unlike all other countries on this list Russia's HSR runs on Russian broad gauge instead of standard gauge and the currently only line connects St. Petersburg and Moscow along an almost perfectly straight line.
  • Spain - the AVE (Alta Velocidad Española, meaning Spanish High-speed) only started running in 1992 and didn't gain steam until quite recently. Since the Barcelona-Madrid route opened for business, air travel has declined steadily along that route. Even longer routes like Sevilla-Madrid or Sevilla-Barcelona have seen rising train ridership and falling passenger numbers on the airlines[28] By August 2017, Spain has the largest high-speed rail network in Europe and the second largest in the world, at 3,100 km. AVE trains use standard gauge tracks, allowing for direct connection with neighboring countries, namely France and Portugal.[21]
  • Sweden - Västtrafik, the agency responsible for public transportation in the Västra Götaland region, western Sweden,[29] reports that train ridership has increased significantly in recent years. In response, the agency is ordering new Bombardier Zefiro trains that could reach 200 km/h. These new trains offer WiFi and accommodations for wheelchairs, pushchairs, and bicycles.[30]
  • United Kingdom - England is the currently the only part of the UK with a dedicated high-speed railway (with operating speeds well in excess of 200 km/h), a 109-kilometer (68-mile) track connecting London to the U.K. end of the Channel Tunnel, called High Speed 1 (HS1),[31] with Eurostar has a notable international service provider.[32] HS1 is working with other rail operators to expand services to Bordeaux, France, Geneva, Switzerland, and Frankfurt, Germany.[32] The U.K. government approved the construction of the HS2 network, expected to enter operations by 2026. Phase I links Birmingham to London and then Folkestone. In London, it will be connected to the existing line going through the Channel Tunnel. Phase II has two branches, one from Birmingham to Manchester and the other from Birmingham to Sheffield and Leeds.[33] In addition, a number of UK legacy lines have been upgraded to allow maximum speeds of up to 125 mph (200 km/h).[2]

North America[edit]

  • United States - as of 2018, the U.S. has two high-speed railways. One is the Northeast Corridor (connecting Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, New Haven, and Boston), served by the Acela Express which can travel at 125 mph (200km/h), and is operated by the National Passenger Railroad Corporation (Amtrak). The Acela will be replaced by the faster Avelia Liberty tilting train by 2021, with more tracks under construction to increase passenger capacity.[34] The other is in FloridaWikipedia's W.svg, which is privately owned. Meanwhile, new high-speed rail lines are being constructed in CaliforniaWikipedia's W.svg (public) and TexasWikipedia's W.svg (private). The XpressWestWikipedia's W.svg line (private) connecting Los Angeles to Las Vegas has been approved,[35] with plans to extend from Las Vegas to Phoenix, Arizona, and to Denver, Colorado, via Salt Lake City, Utah.[36] The Chicago Hub NetworkWikipedia's W.svg has been proposed.[note 3]

Arguments in favor of HSR[edit]

As anybody who has ever been to Europe or Japan can tell you, HSR is fast, clean, convenient and makes little noise (especially compared to planes and cars). It usually runs on electricity that can be produced locally as opposed to imported oil. Further advantages:

  • While airports are often in the middle of nowhere, HSR stations are usually downtown.[37]
  • There is time to work, sleep or relax throughout the trip, as opposed to the "hurry up and wait" on flights or the constant attention to the road required while driving.
  • HSR systems, once built, usually earn money, in stark contrast to most airports and highways that require constant government subsidy.[38][39][note 4]
  • Cities with stops on HSR lines attract innovation and business by offering better access and cutting down on travel time. In all countries with HSR, connected cities have experienced above average growth
  • Most HSR systems are (in the long run) cheaper for end consumers than flights.[citation needed]
  • Those countries that built the first (Japan, France, Germany) or most extensive (China) HSR networks are usually among the first to supply rolling stock to new HSR networks.[note 5] Thus train manufacturers profit from the good reputation of the domestic HSR network[40]
  • Trains beat all other modes of non-human-powered transport hands down in terms of efficiency. The Velaro D for example draws 8000 kW at 320 km/h top speed while seating 460. Which works out to the equivalent of a third of a liter of gas per seat per 100 km.[41][42]
  • From a business standpoint, HSR benefits the companies running the trains as faster trains take less time to cover the same distance and thus can earn more money per given unit of time. Combine this with a faster turnaround than legacy trains and you have a business model not unlike no-frills airlines, who "squeeze out" as many flights of their fleet as humanly possible thus distributing the (high) fixed costs over as large a number of trips as they possibly can.
  • There's no need to go through ridiculous security theater to board a train, as you do to board a plane.

Poor arguments against HSR[edit]

  • NIMBY.[43] No matter where you propose to build an HSR route, the people who live near it are guaranteed to freak out and insist that their land will depreciate.[note 6] Such arguments are feeble, because being within proximity to a train station is obviously convenient. Property prices will likely go up, not down.
  • HSR requires a huge upfront investment (just like highways built from scratch) and as such it is "socialist."[44] Someone call Ike! High-speed trains are certainly expensive, but are a more environmentally friendly and and efficient mode of transportation than cars. The investment will pay off in the long run. Giving people more choices is anything but "socialist."
  • China has it. And Europe. Therefore it is bad.[45]
  • Apparently cars symbolize freedom, while HSR is the epitome of socialism.[46] Although cars allows one to travel at almost complete free will, this argument shoots itself in the foot as high-speed trains in the right places actually increase people's freedom to travel.
  • High Speed Rail is elitist.[47] If people are willing and able to travel by planes, there is fundamentally no reason why they should not travel by train, which can be quite affordable and convenient.
  • In some places (e.g. Australia) the market is so grossly distorted that it is cheaper to send freight by road. (Australia moved away from using rail because of bandits.) Taxpayers bear the cost of the increased damage to roads and higher fatalities to send freight via a less efficient and more costly method. The toll operators have some pretty slick representation, too.

Actual cons of HSR[edit]

  • Eminent domain. It displaces relatively few people when building a track through farmland, but to upgrade the tracks in urban areas where passengers actually are would require that a large number of buildings be demolished and people displaced, which can get expensive really fast.
  • High-speed trains are only appropriate for connecting two or more large cities within reasonable proximity of one another. It does not make sense to build a high-speed railway between, say, two places thousands of miles apart through the desert. Planes would be more economically viable in this scenario because they require less infrastructure.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Just imagine sitting behind a truck going 50 km/h an hour on the interstate - with no possibility to overtake for miles on end - to illustrate the point.
  2. A tilting train can go into curves faster - just like a motorcyclist who leans into a curve. This brings obvious benefits on curvy legacy tracks - though "train sickness" due to the movement of the train is one obvious downside
  3. To see the massive potential that Chicago has as a transportation hub for the Midwest, see the Cross Rail Chicago proposal, aimed at linking the North and South sides of the city for airport express, regional commuter and inter-city high-speed trains.
  4. Even the woefully inadequate Acela ExpressWikipedia's W.svg makes a handsome profit that more than pays for maintenance and operating cost.
  5. The Siemens VelaroWikipedia's W.svg from Germany runs on Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Turkish rails; TGV-based trains by Alstom from France run in South Korea and the US. Taiwan and China bought a couple of (slightly modified) Shinkansens when they opened their networks. China is building high-speed railways left and right and selling the trains with it, though with possible intellectual theft.
  6. It is interesting to note that while Ayn Rand loved trains, libertarians don't.


  2. 2.0 2.1 UK 'lagging behind speedy Europe'. BBC News. September 4, 2007.
  3. The Development of High Speed Rail in the United States: Issues and Recent Events. Federation of American Scientists (FAS) December 20, 2014.
  4. Page 11 of the PDF
  6. Page 24 of the PDF
  7. Der Spiegel arguing that 4 hours is too long but three hours is competitive
  8. page 13 and onwards
  9. Africa’s first high speed line inaugurated. Railway Gazette. November 16, 2018.
  10. For the first time, high-speed rail arrives in Africa. Global Railway Review. November 16, 2018.
  12. Hong Kong leader optimistic about future of high-speed rail link with mainland China, as record 78,000 catch trains on National Day. South China Morning Post. October 2, 2018.
  13. China's 'bullet train' network is the largest in the world — and it's about to get even bigger. Business Insider. April 11, 2018.
  14. Chinese maglev train capable of traveling at 600km/h on track for 2020 test run as design completed. South China Morning Post. October 2, 2018.
  15. Japan: World's fastest train 603km/h. BBC News. April 21st, 2015.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Ranking of High-Speed Trains. Go Euro.
  17. Saudi Arabia opens high-speed railway linking holy cities. BBC. September 25, 2018.
  18. Saudi Arabia unveils new high-speed line. Midwest High Speed Rail Association. October 2, 2018.
  19. Taiwan High-speed Rail. Guide to Taipei. Accessed December 2, 2018.
  20. Taiwan's high-speed rail ten years on. Smart Rail World. February 6, 2017.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Countries With the Most High Speed Rail. World Atlas. Updated April 19, 2018.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Q3 2018 highlights record sales revenues for Eurostar. November 7, 2018.
  23. France’s High-Speed Rail Expansion Takes a New Direction. CityLab. September 12, 2018.
  24. SNCF orders 100 next-generation very high-speed trains from Alstom. Global Railway Review. July 27, 2018.
  25. Operation of ICE 4 equipped with ETCS is approved in Germany. Global Railway Review. November 5, 2018.
  26. Wrapping Up Our Trip. Blog. Midwest High-speed Rail Association. November 12, 2018.
  27. Thousands rally to back Italy-France high-speed train project. Channel NewsAsia. November 11, 2018.
  29. About Västtrafik (in English). Accessed November 28, 2018.
  30. Västtrafik orders additional new high-speed trains. Global Rail Review. November 28, 2018.
  31. Rail. High Speed 1. Access November 29, 2018.
  32. 32.0 32.1 Financial Times. May 13, 2018.
  33. High-speed rail: how do we compare to the rest of the world?. The Guardian. Data Blog. January 10, 2012.
  34. When Are Truly High-Speed Trains Coming To Amtrak?. Forbes. September 30, 2018.
  35. Southern California-Las Vegas train back on track after sale. Associated Press. September 19, 2018.
  36. The Southwest Network. XpressWest.
  42. (the tagline of the last image)
  43. Cruickshank, "Private Ownership Doesn’t Spare Florida Higher Speed Rail From NIMBYs", CHSR Blog. ("Residents who believe that their cities should be oriented around the automobile react with furious anger at the very notion of passenger rail service, convinced it will turn their neighborhoods into some kind of ruined wasteland.")
  44. The Left's High-Speed Rail Fantasy, The Daily Signal (the Heritage Foundation's bullhorn), March 17, 2009.
  45. The Association of Public Transport in America (APTA) felt it necessary to counter both the "European" and "socialist" objections on page 5 of An Inventory of the Criticisms of High-Speed Rail while China pops up on page 7 and 21.
  46. As explained by the Very Serious pundit George Will in Newsweek
  47. Simon Jenkins, "High-speed rail will bleed us all for a few rich travellers", The Guardian.