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High speed rail

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High speed rail (HSR) is the platform on which some modern electric trains run on. While some trains use wheels, others employ magnetic levitation and electric propulsion with an aerodynamic shape, thereby eliminating friction and minimizing 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, the United States, North Africa, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Under some circumstances, they provide a viable alternative to air travel, driving, or taking a bus. Being electrically powered, it is possible for them to run entirely on renewable and nuclear energy.

A Spanish AVE class 103 (Velaro E) on the Barcelona-Figueres High speed line.

Definitions of HSR[edit]

There is no single authoritative definition of HSRWikipedia's W.svg. European countries agree that 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] In the United States, the Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Association (USDOT FRA) put forth the following definitions:[2]

  • Express high-speed rail: at least 150 mph on grade separated tracks dedicated to passenger service
  • Regional high-speed rail: 110 - 150 mph on grade-separated tracks
  • Emerging high-speed rail: top speeds of 90 - 110 mph

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.[3][4][5][6][7]

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. [8] 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 are of peculiar designs, such as the Transrapid magnetically levitated monorail train, and as such require their own tracks in order to function.

Countries that have HSR[edit]

Map of the high-speed railways in China.
Map of high-speed rail lines in Europe.
The L0 Series from Japan holds the current record of the world's fastest train.
  • Belgium - Belgium has four different high-speed rail routes.
  • China - while China had virtually no high-speed railways at the beginning of the this century, it has built a lot in recent years. (See map.) Ever since the profits of several Chinese airlines have been plummeting and hardly any airline offers flights directly competing with HSR.[9]
  • France - when the first lines opened in the 1980s they were the pride of their nation.[citation needed]
  • Germany - The ICE (Inter City Express, originally Inter City Experimental) had its first trial runs in the late 1980s and started revenue service in the 1990s. After a line opened connecting Frankfurt and Cologne all flights between the two airports ceased. The first train to run faster than 200 km/h (albeit barely) in trial runs on an electrified line ran in Germany in 1903[10].
  • Italy - Italy has an interesting history of high(er) speed rail, with the PendolinoWikipedia's W.svg tilting train[note 1] technology their most successful technology export on rails.
  • 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).[11]
  • Morocco - This North African country is building a HSR system with mostly French money and technology.
  • The Netherlands - and everybody smokes pot on the trains.[citation NOT needed]
  • 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) 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[12]
  • South Korea - The Seoul-Busan is now one of the most popular HSR routes in the world.
  • Taiwan - one North-South line connects Taipei with Kaohsiung along the West Coast. With trains taking just over one and a half hours for the entire route, domestic flights have disappeared overnight.
  • United States - for a variety of reasons, till 2018, the U.S. only a single high-speed rail line along the Northeast Corridor (connecting Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, New Haven, and Boston) where the Acela Express reaches more than 125 mph (200km/h), the lower boundary for HSR according to European definitions. The Acela will be replaced by the Avelia Liberty, which will be even faster. The Avelia Liberty is an actively tilting train, allowing it to increase speed without consuming more electricity. Meanwhile, new high-speed rail lines are being constructed in CaliforniaWikipedia's W.svg and TexasWikipedia's W.svg and one has already been completed in FloridaWikipedia's W.svg. The XpressWestWikipedia's W.svg line connecting Los Angeles to Las Vegas has been approved,[13] with plans to extend from Las Vegas to Phoenix, Arizona, to the South, and Denver, Colorado to the West.[14] The Chicago Hub NetworkWikipedia's W.svg has been proposed.[note 2]
  • United Kingdom - England is the only part of the UK with a dedicated HSR line (with operating speeds well in excess of 200 km/h), a short purpose-built stretch connecting London to the Channel Tunnel and the Belgian and French HSR systems. In addition, a number of UK legacy lines have been upgraded to allow maximum speeds of just above 200 km/h, operating speeds rarely reach the peak and are sometimes classed as higher-speed rail,Wikipedia's W.svg rather than true HSR.Wikipedia's W.svg

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.[15]
  • 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.[16][17][note 3]
  • 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 4] Thus train manufacturers profit from the good reputation of the domestic HSR network[18]
  • 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.[19][20]
  • 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.[21] 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 5] 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."[22] 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.[23]
  • Apparently cars symbolize freedom, while HSR is the epitome of socialism.[24] 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.[25] 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. 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
  2. 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.
  3. Even the woefully inadequate Acela ExpressWikipedia's W.svg makes a handsome profit that more than pays for maintenance and operating cost.
  4. 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.
  5. It is interesting to note that while Ayn Rand loved trains, libertarians don't.


  2. The Development of High Speed Rail in the United States: Issues and Recent Events. Federation of American Scientists (FAS) December 20, 2014.
  3. Page 11 of the PDF
  5. Page 24 of the PDF
  6. Der Spiegel arguing that 4 hours is too long but three hours is competitive
  7. page 13 and onwards
  8. 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.
  10. see here for a bit more detail
  11. Japan: World's fastest train 603km/h. BBC News. April 21st, 2015.
  13. Southern California-Las Vegas train back on track after sale. Associated Press. September 19, 2018.
  14. The Southwest Network. XpressWest.
  20. (the tagline of the last image)
  21. 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.")
  22. The Left's High-Speed Rail Fantasy, The Daily Signal (the Heritage Foundation's bullhorn), March 17, 2009.
  23. 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.
  24. As explained by the Very Serious pundit George Will in Newsweek
  25. Simon Jenkins, "High-speed rail will bleed us all for a few rich travellers", The Guardian.