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“”We must find ways to move more people, to move these people faster, and to move them with greater comfort and with more safety.
|—Lyndon B. Johnson|
High-speed rail (HSR) is a platform on which some modern trains run on at speeds faster than traditional rail traffic. While some of these trains use wheels, others employ magnetic levitation, thereby reducing friction and the number of moving parts. All such 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 operate 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. In general, high-speed rail is viable in regions with high population-density and wealth.
Definitions of high-speed rail
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 grade-separated tracks. In the United States, the Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Association (USDOT FRA) put forth the following definitions:
- 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)
High-speed rail must be adapted to the unique needs and challenges of each country interested in building it. There are of course more to high-speed rail than the train and its top speed. When creating a high-speed rail service, one also needs to consider signaling, infrastructure, operations and maintenance.
Countries with operational high-speed railways
Morocco. Morocco inaugurated Africa's first high-speed railway in November 2018, connecting Tangier to Kénitra, in the northern part of the 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 travel from Tangier 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 from Tangier to Casablanca down to just an hour and a half. The Tangier-Kénitra line features the Avelia Euroduplex articulated bilevel train with one section dedicated to those with reduced mobility.
China. While China had virtually no high-speed railways at the beginning of the 21st century, construction has been taking place at a feverish pace. Several Chinese airlines have consequently seen their revenues plummeting and hardly any airline offers flights directly competing with HSR. A high-speed railway linking Hong Kong to the rest of mainland China opened in 2018, 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. 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).
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). In terms of costs per kilometer, coverage, and operating speeds, Japan's high-speed rail network is one of the best in the world.
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. Uniquely, there are designated camel crossings.
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. 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 railways. New trains were ordered from Japan in 2019.
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, and has seen significant increases in passenger traffic for years in a row.
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. 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. The French high-speed rail network offers direct connections to neighboring countries, namely, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy.
Germany. Intercity Express (ICE) trains entered service starting in 1991, connecting Hamburg to Munich, 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. 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.
Italy. Italy invented the Pendolino tilting train.[note 1] The North-South Corridor was completed and entered service in late 2009. Most journeys should take no longer than three hours. During peak periods, trains of the Milan-Rome line operate at 15-minute intervals. High-speed railways branch out from Milan to Turin, Venice, Bologna, Rome, Naples, and Salerno and there are connections to Switzerland. 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.
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 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.
Sweden. Västtrafik, the agency responsible for public transportation in the Västra Götaland region, western Sweden, 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.
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): High Speed 1 (HS1), a 109-kilometer (68-mile) track connecting London to the U.K. end of the Channel Tunnel. Eurostar, the main operator of trains through the Channel Tunnel, is the principal international service provider, although the line is also used for freight and for commuter trains to Kent operated by Southeastern. HS1 is working with other rail operators to expand services to Bordeaux, France, Geneva, Switzerland, and Frankfurt, Germany. The U.K. government approved the construction of the HS2 network, expected to enter operations by 2029. Phase 1 links Birmingham to London. Although original plans called for it to connect to HS1 in London for services to Folkestone and Europe, these were later dropped. This was largely due to layout and operational difficulties related to way in which HS1 terminates into St Pancras, rather than building proposed new through-platforms behind Kings Cross, which would allow through-services to the rets of the UK. Phase 2 has two proposed branches, one from Birmingham to Manchester and the other from Birmingham to Sheffield and Leeds. In November 2021, the government announced the cancellation of the Eastern leg to Leeds and Northern Powerhouse Rail, sparking outrage amongst northern city councils. In addition, a number of UK legacy lines have been upgraded to allow maximum speeds of up to 125 mph (200 km/h). However, these peak speeds are often misleading as trains may frequently have to slow for legacy bridges, tunnels and tight bends which cannot safely accommodate the higher speeds.
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 first-generation Acela will be replaced by the faster Avelia Liberty tilting train by the mid 2020s, with more tracks under construction to increase passenger capacity. The other is in Florida, which is privately owned. Meanwhile, new high-speed rail lines are being constructed in California (public) and Texas (private). The XpressWest line (private) connecting Los Angeles to Las Vegas has been approved, with plans to extend from Las Vegas to Phoenix, Arizona, and to Denver, Colorado, via Salt Lake City, Utah. The Chicago Hub Network has been proposed.[note 2]
Benefits of high-speed rail
Benefits to society
- Economic stimulus. Many jobs are created directly and indirectly. People get hired for transportation services and manufacturing jobs. In general, businesses are attracted to places with good transportation options.
- Reduction of congestion thanks to high-capacity and high-frequency service. In a highly congested city, people may spend more time sitting than driving. In fact, traffic jams are costly.
- Reduction of dependence on fossil fuels and greater environmental friendliness. Modern high-speed trains are nine times more energy-efficient than planes and four times more than cars. They also use about a third as much space as highways, while transporting many more people. Moreover, high-speed trains can be powered at least partially by renewable energy. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution are dramatically reduced.
- 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 3] Thus train manufacturers profit from the good reputation of the domestic HSR network
- Curbing urban sprawl and improved walkabililty. Good transportation means fewer private vehicles and more space for people. Moreover, a major train station can serve as an intermodal transportation hub and provides business and retail space.
Benefits to the individual
- More free time available. Passengers can work, eat, rest, or do something other than driving. High-speed rail is competitive against air travel for distances of 400 miles (640 km) or less. Post 9/11, HSR may be competitive for distances exceeding 500-600 miles when considering "door-to-door" travel times due to delays imposed by enhanced airport security.
- Independence of weather, except in extreme cases. Flights are canceled due to bad weather whereas trains can still operate most of the time.
- Improved mobility. A high-speed rail network that is well-integrated with public transit and airports enable people to move more quickly and easily.
- Safety. Trains are among the safest mode of transportation available.
- Flexibility and accessibility. Baggage and security checks takes less time for trains than for planes.
- Comfort. The average economy class seat on a passenger train has much, much more legroom than an economy class seat on a plane. This is because airlines are concerned with packing as many passengers into one cramped aircraft as possible to maximize profits, while a train can spread that same amount of passengers out across multiple cars, thus requiring less seats per car, which translates to more legroom.
- Accessibility. Train stations tend to be located at the heart of a city, rather than awkwardly situated on the outskirts and requiring airline passengers to go the rest of the way to their destination in either a shuttle or rental car. For example, Denver International Airport is located 25 miles away from Denver itself due to the area's geography, while Denver Union Station is conveniently located in downtown.
Drawbacks of high-speed rail
- 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 infrastructure requirement. 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. However, with climate-change becoming a bigger problem HSR may be a more viable option even for long distance travel. Strategic use of high-speed sleeper trains could enable trips of over 1000 miles overnight, without taking time from the traveller's day.
Misconceptions about high-speed rails
- Some people who live near public transportation in general and high-speed railways in particular will oppose the project and insist that their land will depreciate. 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." High-speed trains are certainly expensive, but come with numerous advantages, as explained above. The investment will pay off in the long run. Giving people more choices is anything but "socialist."
- Unlike high-speed rail, cars bring freedom. 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. Moreover, car drivers need to worry about car insurance, congestion, and traffic collisions, train riders do not. However, car drivers do not need to follow someone else's schedule.
- High Speed Rail is elitist. 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, depending on location.
- 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.
- Hyperloop — Elon Musk's proposed alternative.
- Rail transportation for the 'legacy network' referred to in the article.
- Tilting Pendolini — 3D animation by Alstom.
- Derailed - A 6 part radio series by Wisconsin Public Radio that explores what happened to Wisconsin's high speed rail project and the politics involved in its demise.
- 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
- 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 O'Hare International Airport, one of the busiest in the world, with North and South sides of the city for regional/commuter and inter-city high-speed trains.
- The Siemens Velaro 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.
- High-speed rail in America: Tracks to the future. Global Rail Review. August 20, 2018. Accessed January 27, 2019.
- UK 'lagging behind speedy Europe'. BBC News. September 4, 2007.
- The Development of High Speed Rail in the United States: Issues and Recent Events (PDF). Federation of American Scientists (FAS) December 20, 2014.
- High-speed Principles and Advantages. International Union of Railways (UIC). June 3, 2015. Accessed February 14, 2019.
- Africa’s first high speed line inaugurated. Railway Gazette. November 16, 2018.
- For the first time, high-speed rail arrives in Africa. Global Railway Review. November 16, 2018.
- 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.
- China's 'bullet train' network is the largest in the world — and it's about to get even bigger. Business Insider. April 11, 2018.
- 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.
- Japan: World's fastest train 603km/h. BBC News. April 21st, 2015.
- Ranking of High-Speed Trains. Go Euro.
- Saudi Arabia opens high-speed railway linking holy cities. BBC. September 25, 2018.
- Saudi Arabia unveils new high-speed line. Midwest High Speed Rail Association. October 2, 2018.
- Taiwan High-speed Rail. Guide to Taipei. Accessed December 2, 2018.
- Taiwan's high-speed rail ten years on. Smart Rail World. February 6, 2017.
- Hitachi to supply Taiwan Railways Administration with 600 EMUs. Global Rail Review. January 16, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2019.
- Countries With the Most High Speed Rail. World Atlas. Updated April 19, 2018.
- Getlink’s momentum continues with ninth year of revenue growth. Global Rail Review. January 23, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2019.
- France’s High-Speed Rail Expansion Takes a New Direction. CityLab. September 12, 2018.
- SNCF orders 100 next-generation very high-speed trains from Alstom. Global Railway Review. July 27, 2018.
- Operation of ICE 4 equipped with ETCS is approved in Germany. Global Railway Review. November 5, 2018.
- Italian north-south high speed line completed. Global Rail Review. December 9, 2009. Accessed January 27, 2019.
- Wrapping Up Our Trip. Blog. Midwest High-speed Rail Association. November 12, 2018.
- Thousands rally to back Italy-France high-speed train project. Channel NewsAsia. November 11, 2018.
- Q3 2018 highlights record sales revenues for Eurostar. November 7, 2018.
- About Västtrafik (in English). Accessed November 28, 2018.
- Västtrafik orders additional new high-speed trains. Global Rail Review. November 28, 2018.
- Rail. Accessed February 15, 2019.
- https://www.ft.com/content/272feeac-4fc0-11e8-9471-a083af05aea7. Financial Times. May 13, 2018.
- See the Wikipedia article on High Speed 1.
- Government decides to drop £700m HS2 to HS1 link, 17 March 2014
- High-speed rail: how do we compare to the rest of the world?. The Guardian. Data Blog. January 10, 2012.
- ‘Betrayal of the north’: Furious leaders demand free Commons vote as Johnson slashes rail plans, 18 November 2021
- Government confirms the great Northern rail betrayal, 18 November 2021
- Boris’s rail betrayal is no surprise, 18 November 2021
- Andy Burnham leads plan to save full Northern Powerhouse Rail route through landowner taxes, 24 November 2021
- The Conservative Party’s Great Rail Betrayal, 22 June 2022
- When Are Truly High-Speed Trains Coming To Amtrak?. Forbes. September 30, 2018.
- Southern California-Las Vegas train back on track after sale. Associated Press. September 19, 2018.
- The Southwest Network. XpressWest.
- Benefits of High-Speed Rail for the United States. American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Accessed February 14, 2019.
- Areas With Mass Transit See Job Growth, Research Indicates. NPR. November 23, 2018. Accessed February 14, 2019.
- Derek Markham, Planet Green. 8 Benefits of High-speed Trains. August 29, 2012. Accessed February 14, 2019.
-  High Speed Rail Alliance - Night Trains
- 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.")
- What Investors Should Know About Public Transportation's Effect On Manhattan Real Estate Value. Forbes. November 27, 2018. Accessed February 14, 2019.
- The Left's High-Speed Rail Fantasy, The Daily Signal (the Heritage Foundation's bullhorn), March 17, 2009.
- 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.
- George Will in a Newsweek article Why Liberals Love Trains
- Simon Jenkins, "High-speed rail will bleed us all for a few rich travellers", The Guardian.