High-speed rail (HSR) is a type of passenger rail transport that operates significantly faster than the normal speed of rail traffic. Specific definitions include 200 km/h (120 mph) for upgraded track and 250 km/h (160 mph) or faster for new track by the European Union. In Japan Shinkansen lines run at speeds in excess of 260 km/h (160 mph) and are built using standard gauge track with no at-grade crossings. In China, high-speed conventional rail lines operate at top speeds of 350 km/h (220 mph), and one maglev line reaches speeds of 430 km/h (270 mph).
While high-speed rail is usually designed for passenger travel, some high-speed systems also carry some kind of freight service. For instance, the French mail service La Poste owns a few special TGV trains for carrying postal freight.
Railways were the first form of mass transportation on land and until the development of the motorcar in the early 20th century had an effective monopoly on land transport. Railway companies in Europe and the United States used streamlined trains since 1933 for high speed services with an average speed of up to 130 km/h (81 mph) and top speed of more than 160 km/h (99 mph). Both streamlined steam locomotives and high-speed EMUs were used for high speed services.
In 1957, the Odakyu Electric Railway in Greater Tokyo launched its Romancecar 3000 SE. This set a world record for narrow gauge trains at 145 km/h (90 mph), giving Japanese designers confidence they could safely and reliably build even faster trains at standard gauge. Desperate for transport solutions due to overloaded trains between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, the idea of high speed rail was born.
The world's first contemporary high volume capable (initially 12 car maximum) "high-speed train" was Japan's Tōkaidō Shinkansen, which officially opened in October 1964, with construction having begun in April 1959. The 0 Series Shinkansen, built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, achieved maximum passenger service speeds of 210 km/h (130 mph) on the Tokyo–Nagoya–Kyoto–Osaka route, with earlier test runs hitting top speeds in 1963 at 256 km/h.
In Europe, high-speed rail started during the International Transport Fair in Munich in June 1965, when DB Class 103 hauled a total of 347 demonstration trains at 200 km/h between Munich and Augsburg. The first regular service at this speed was the TEE "Le Capitole" between Paris and Toulouse with specially adapted SNCF Class BB 9200 locomotives.
There are a number of different definitions for high-speed rail in use worldwide and there is no single standard. Additionally lower speeds can be required by local constraints. EC Directive 96/58 defines high-speed rail as systems of rolling stock and infrastructure which regularly operate at or above 250 km/h on new tracks, or 200 km/h on existing tracks.
In Japan high speed Shinkansen lines use standard gauge track rather than narrow gauge track used on other Japanese lines. These travel at speeds in excess of 260 km/h (160 mph) without at-grade crossings.
In China there are two grades of high speed lines. Firstly slower lines that run at speeds of between 200 and 250 km/h (120 and 160 mph) and have freight as well as passenger trains. Secondly, [[High-speed rail in China|passenger dedicated high speed rail lines operate at top speeds above 300 km/h (190 mph).
A definitive aspect of high speed rail is the use of continuous welded rail which reduces track vibrations and discrepancies between rail segments enough to allow trains to pass at speeds in excess of 200 km/h (120 mph). Depending on design speed, banking and the forces deemed acceptable to the passengers, curves often exceed a 5 kilometre radius.
There are also a number of characteristics common to most high-speed rail systems. Almost all are electrically driven via overhead lines and have in-cab signalling as well as no at-grade crossings, although there are some exceptions like the Great Western line in Britain. Advanced switches using very low entry and frog angles are also often used.
Magnetic levitation trains fall under the category of high-speed rail due to their association with track oriented vehicles; however their inability to operate on conventional railroads often leads to their classification in a separate category.
In both Japan and France the initial impetus for the introduction of high speed rail was the need for additional capacity to meet increasing demand for passenger rail travel. By the mid-1950s, the Tōkaidō Main Line in Japan was operating at full capacity, and construction of the first segment of the Tōkaidō Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka started in 1959. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen opened on October 1, 1964, in time for the Tokyo Olympics. The situation for the first line in Japan was different than the subsequent lines. The route was already so densely populated and rail oriented that highway development would be extremely costly and one single line between Tokyo and Osaka could bring service to over half the nation's population. In 1959 that was nearly 45 million people; today it is well over 65 million. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen line is the most heavily traveled high speed line in the world and still transports more passengers than all other high speed rail lines in the world combined. Subsequent lines in Japan had a rationale more similar to situations in Europe.
In France the main line between Paris and Lyon was projected to run out of capacity by 1970. In both cases the choice to build a completely separate passenger-only line allowed for the much straighter higher speed lines. The dramatically reduced travel times on both lines, bringing cities within three hours of one another, caused explosions in ridership. It was the commercial success of both lines that inspired those countries and their economies to expand or start high speed rail networks.
In the United States in the decades after World War II, improvements in automobiles and aircraft, anti-trust restrictions on railroads, and government subsidization of highways and airports 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 interstate highway system and airports. Urban mass transport systems in the United States were largely eschewed in favor of road expansion. U.S. railways have been less competitive partly because the government has tended to favor road and air transportation more than in Japan and European countries and partly because of lower population density in the United States, but as energy costs increase, rail ridership is increasing across the country.
In China, the plans for the largest high-speed railway network in history were driven by a combination of capacity constraints on existing lines and a desire to shorten journey times across the nation, whilst promoting development along the route. The construction schedule was significantly accelerated due to additional funding in the 4 trillion RMB stimulus package of 2008 and a number of lines are due to be completed by 2013.
Travel by rail becomes more competitive in areas of higher population density or where gasoline is expensive, because conventional trains are more fuel efficient than cars when ridership is high, similar to other forms of mass transit. Very few high-speed trains consume diesel or other fossil fuels but the power stations that provide electric trains with power can consume fossil fuels. In Japan and France, where the most extensive high speed rail networks exist, a large proportion of electricity comes from nuclear power. Even using electricity generated from coal or oil, trains are more fuel efficient per passenger per kilometer traveled than the typical automobile because of economies of scale in generator technology. Rail networks, like highways, require large fixed capital investments and thus require a blend of high density and government investment to be competitive against existing capital infrastructure for aircraft and automobiles. Urban density and mass transit have been key factors in the success of European and Japanese railway transport, especially in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and France.
Much of the technology behind high-speed rail is an improved application of mature standard gauge rail technology using overhead electrification. By building a new rail infrastructure with 20th century engineering, including elimination of constrictions such as roadway at-grade (level) 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 (250–320 km/h) are maintained. Total cost of ownership of HSR systems is generally lower than the total costs of competing alternatives (new highway or air capacity). Japanese systems are often more expensive than their counterparts but more comprehensive because they have their own dedicated elevated guideway, no traffic crossings, and disaster monitoring systems. Despite this the lion's share of the Japanese system's cost is related to the boring of tunnels through mountains, as was in Taiwan. Recent advances in wheeled trains in the last few decades have pushed the speed limits past 400 km/h, among the advances being tilting trainsets, aerodynamic designs (to reduce drag, lift, and noise), air brakes, regenerative braking, stronger engines, dynamic weight shifting, etc. Some of the advances were to fix problems, like the Eschede disaster. The record speed for a wheeled electric train is 574.8 km/h is held by a shortened TGV train and long straight track. The record speed for an unmodified commercial trainset is 403.7 km/h, held by Deutsche Bahn's Class 403, the German Type classification for the Siemens Velaro. European high-speed routes typically combine segments on new track, where the train runs at full commercial speed, with some sections of older track on the extremities of the route, near cities.
In France, the cost of construction (which was €10 million/km (US$15.1 million/km) for LGV Est) is minimised by adopting steeper grades rather than building tunnels and viaducts. However, in mountainous Switzerland, tunnels are inevitable. Because the lines are dedicated to passengers, gradients 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. Experience has shown however, that trains of significantly different speeds cause massive decreases of line capacity. As a result, mixed-traffic lines are usually reserved for high-speed passenger trains during the daytime, while freight trains go at night. In some cases, nighttime high-speed trains are even diverted to lower speed lines in favor of freight traffic.
For the purposes of this table, high speed rail is defined as passenger rail running at a top speed of 200 km/h (124 mph) or higher. Countries with scheduled services at 300 km/h or faster are highlighted in blue.
|Scheduled trains||Test run speed record||Average speed of
fastest scheduled train
|Austria||230 km/h||275 km/h||153 km/h|
|Belgium||214||300, 250 km/h||347 km/h||237 km/h|
|China||3300 ||431 km/h (maglev)
350, 330, 300, 250, 200 km/h (conventional)
|502 km/h (maglev)
394 km/h (conventional)
|Finland||0||220 km/h||255 km/h||152 km/h|
|France||1700||320, 300, 280, 210 km/h||574 km/h||272 km/h|
|Germany||1290||300, 280, 250, 230 km/h (conventional)||550 km/h (maglev)
406 km/h (conventional)
|Italy||814.5||300, 260, 200 km/h||368 km/h||178 km/h|
|Japan||2459||300, 275, 260 km/h (conventional)||581 km/h (maglev)
443 km/h (conventional)
|Netherlands||100||300, 250, 140/160 km/h||336.2 km/h||<140 km/h|
|Norway||0||210 km/h||260 km/h||151 km/h|
|Portugal||0||220 km/h||275 km/h||<140 km/h|
|Russia||0||250 km/h||290 km/h||172 km/h|
|South Korea||240.4||300, 240 km/h||355 km/h||200 km/h|
|Spain||1272.3||300, 250 km/h||404 km/h||236 km/h|
|Sweden||0||200 km/h||303 km/h||173 km/h|
|Switzerland||79||250, 200 km/h||280 km/h||<140 km/h|
|Taiwan||335.5||300, 240 km/h||315 km/h||245 km/h|
|Turkey||245||250 km/h||303 km/h||<140 km/h|
|United Kingdom||109||300 km/h, 225 km/h, 201 km/h||335 km/h||219 km/h|
|United States||0||241 km/h, 201 km/h||296 km/h (jet)
264 km/h (conventional)
The term "maximum speed" has many meanings here. It can reflect:
A one time specially modified system and trainset record (see land speed record for railed vehicles) was set by the manned TGV's 574.8 km/h run. This run was for proof of concept and not for normal passenger service.
The maximum speed an unmodified train is capable of running was set by the non-wheeled 581 km/h JR-Maglev MLX01 run in 2003. However, even this is not necessarily suitable for passenger operation as there can be concerns such as noise, cost, deceleration time in an emergency, etc.
The Shanghai Maglev Train reaches 431 km/h during its daily service between Longyang Road and Pudong International Airport, holds the speed record of any commercial train services. Besides maglev, the fastest maximum operating speed (MOR) of any segment of any high speed rail line is currently 350 km/h (217 mph), a record held by China. It is Beijing–Tianjin Intercity Rail which links Beijing to neighbouring Tianjin (117 km in 30 minutes). The trains have shown an unmodified capability of running 394 km/h in tests, and thus have been set to run 350 km/h in normal operation. That rail line went into operation on August 1, 2008.
The highest scheduled average speed between two scheduled stops is held by China Railway High-speed service on Wuhan-Guangzhou High-Speed Railway. Non-stop trains on this line cover the 922-km journey in 2 hours, 57 minutes, at an average speed of 312.5 km/h from Wuhan to Guangzhou North.
The early target areas, identified by France, Japan, and the U.S., were connections between pairs of large cities. In France, this was Paris–Lyon, in Japan, Tokyo–Osaka, and in the U.S. the proposals are in high-density areas. The only rail service at present in the U.S. using high-speed trains is the Acela Express, in the Northeast Corridor between Boston, New York and Washington, D.C.; it uses tilting trains to achieve speeds of up to 240 km/h (150 mph) on existing tracks. The Northeast Corridor is also the only high-speed rail corridor in the world with grade crossings, although these crossings will eventually be replaced with overpasses.
In Europe, South Korea, and Japan, dense networks of city subways and railways connect seamlessly with high speed rail lines. Some argue that cities lacking dense intra-city rail infrastructure, like some cities in the USA, would find low ridership for high speed rail. The argument is that it is incompatible with existing automobile infrastructure. (People will want to drive when traveling in city, so they might as well drive the entire trip). However, others contend that this does not square with the high use of rail transport in the Northeast Corridor, where many people living in the towns outside the large eastern cities drive to the commuter train and then commute by train the rest of the way in, similar to the way many people drive to an airport, park their cars and then fly to their final destination. Car sharing, car rentals, and taxis can also supplement local mass transit and walkable density at destination stations. And, the presence of high-speed rail catalyzes denser development around said stations.
Since in Japan intra-city rail daily usage per capita is the highest, it follows naturally that ridership of 6 billion passengers exceeds the French TGV of 1 billion (until 2003), the only other system to reach a billion cumulative passengers. For comparison, the world's fleet of 22,685 aircraft carried 2.1 billion passengers in 2006, according to International Civil Aviation Organization.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority is currently planning lines from the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento to Los Angeles and Irvine via the Central Valley, as well as a line from Los Angeles to San Diego via the Inland Empire. The Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation strives to bring Texas an innovative high-speed rail and multimodal transportation corridor. The Corporation developed the Brazos Express Corridor to link Central Texas. New York State Senator Caesar Trunzo announced a long-term plan to bring high-speed rail service between Buffalo and New York City, via Albany, to under three hours.
Later high speed rail lines, such as the LGV Atlantique, the LGV Est, and most high speed lines in Germany, were designed as feeder routes branching into conventional rail lines, serving a larger number of medium-sized cities.
A side effect of the first high-speed rail lines in France was the opening up of previously isolated regions to fast economic development. Some newer high-speed lines have been planned primarily for this purpose, such as the Madrid–Sevilla line and the proposed Amsterdam–Groningen line. Cities relatively close to a major city may see an increase in population, but those farther away may actually lose population (except for tourist spots), having a ripple effect on local economies.
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. The first French high-speed rail line, or Ligne à grande vitesse (LGV), was opened in 1981 by SNCF, the French rail agency, planning starting in 1966 and construction in 1976.
'Market segmentation has principally focused on the business travel market. The French original focus on business travelers is reflected by the early design of the TGV trains, including the bar car. Pleasure travel was to be a secondary market; now many of the French extensions connect with vacation beaches on the Atlantic and Mediterranean, as well as major amusement parks and also the very popular Alpine ski resorts in France or Switzerland. Friday evenings are the peak time for TGVs (train à grande vitesse) (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.' (Levinson, D.)
On the Paris - Lyon service, the number of passengers grew to impressive numbers justifying the introduction of double-decks coaches on the TGV trainsets.
Other target areas include freight lines, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia, which would allow 3 day Far East to Europe service for freight as opposed to months by ship (but still slower than air), and allow just in time deliveries. High speed north-south freight lines in Switzerland are under construction, avoiding slow mountainous truck traffic, and lowering labour costs.
In South America, the Brazilian government is currently studying a high speed rail line connecting the cities Campinas and São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. This high speed rail line will also connect these airports: Viracopos (Campinas), Guarulhos (São Paulo) and Galeao (Rio de Janeiro).
As of October 2009, China is constructing a 13,000 km high speed railway network comprising of 42 passenger lines. When this is completed by 2012, it will be larger and technologically more sophisticated than the rest of the world's HSR track combined. See also High-speed rail in China
Road Rail Parallel Layout is an approach that uses the land around the road to pass the railway lines, like the HSR line from Paris to Lyon started in 1981 with 15% of its stretch along highway and Cologne to Frankfurt with 70%.
High speed rail is often viewed as an isolated system and simply as advantageous or disadvantageous as compared to other transport systems, but all transport systems must work together to maximize benefits. A good HSR system has capacity for non-stop and local services and has good connectivity with other transport systems. HSR, like any transport system, is not inherently convenient, fast, clean, nor comfortable. All of this depends on design, implementation, maintenance, operation and funding. Operational smoothness is often more indicative of organizational discipline than technological prowess.
Due to current infrastructure designs in many nations, there are constraints on the growth of the highway and air travel systems. Some key factors promoting HSR is that airports and highways have no room to expand, and are often overloaded. High-speed rail has the potential for high capacity on its fixed corridors (double decked E4 Series Shinkansen can carry 1,634 seated passengers, double that of an Airbus A380 in all economy class, and even more if standing passengers are allowed), and has the potential to relieve congestion on the other systems. Well-established high speed rail systems in use today are more environmentally friendly than air or road travel. This is due to:
High-speed rail has the advantage over automobiles in that it can move passengers at speeds far faster than those allowed by car in most countries. The lower limit for HSR (200 km/h, 125 mph) is substantially faster than the highest road speed limit in most countries. Ignoring the few countries without a general speed limit, the speed limit is rarely higher than 130 km/h (80 mph). For journeys that connect city centre to city centre, HSR's advantage is increased due to the lower speed limits within most urban areas. Generally, the longer the journey, the better the time advantage of rail over road if going to the same destination.
Moreover, train tracks permit a far higher throughput of passengers per hour than a road the same width. A high speed rail needs just a double track railway, one track for each direction. A typical capacity is 15 trains per hour and 800 passengers per train (as for the Eurostar sets), which implies a capacity of 12,000 passengers per hour in each direction. By way of contrast, the Highway Capacity Manual gives a maximum capacity for a single lane of highway of 2,250 passenger cars per hour (excluding trucks or RVs). Assuming an average vehicle occupancy of 1.57 people, a standard twin track railway has a typical capacity 13% greater than a 6-lane highway (3 lanes each way), while requiring only 40% of the land (1.0/3.0 versus 2.5/7.5 hectares per kilometer of direct/indirect land consumption). This means that typical passenger rail carries 2.83 times as many passengers per hour per meter (width) as a road. Some passenger rail systems, such as the Tokaido Shinkansen line in Japan, have much higher ratios (with as many as 20,000 passengers per hour per direction). Congested roadways tend to be commuter – these carry fewer than 1.57 persons per vehicle (Washington State Department of Transportation, for instance, uses 1.2 persons per vehicle) during commute times. Congestion also causes the maximum throughput of a lane to decrease.
While commercial high-speed trains have maximum operating speeds much slower than jet aircraft, they have advantages over air travel mostly for relatively short distances, and can be an integral part of a transportation system. They also connect city centre rail stations to multiple other city centre rail stations (with an intermediate stop passenger loading/unloading time of one or two minutes), while air transport necessarily connects airports outside city centres to other airports outside city centres (with a stop time for intermediate destinations of 30 minutes to 1 hour.) Both systems complement each other if they are well designed and maintained.
HSR is best suited for journeys of 2 to 3 hours (250–900 km or about 150–550 miles), for which the train can beat both air and car in this range. When traveling less than about 650 km (400 mi), the process of checking in and going through security screening at airports, as well as the journey to the airport itself makes the total air journey time no faster than HSR. However, anecdotally, competition authorities in Europe treat HSR for city pairs as competitive with passenger air at 4 to 4.5 hours, allowing a 1 hour flight at least 40 minutes at each point for travel to and from the airport, check-in, security, boarding, disembarcation, baggage retrieval, and other waits.
However, unless air travel is severely congested, merely providing a comparable service is often not a compelling financial basis for building an HSR system from scratch. As a rule of thumb, rail journeys need to be four hours or thereabouts to be competitive with air travel on journey time. One factor which may have a further bearing on HSR's competitiveness is the general lack of inconvenience when using HSR, for example the lack of a requirement to check baggage, or repeated queuing for check in, security and boarding as well as the typically high on-time reliability as compared to air. Separately, from a business traveler's perspective, HSR can offer amenities such as cellular phone network availability, booth tables, more elaborate power outlets (AC mains outlet vs DC 12v outlet), more elaborate food service, no low altitude electronics ban, self service baggage storage area at end of car (eliminating checked baggage), and on for example Franco-German TGV-Est wireless internet broadband.
There are routes where high-speed trains have totally beaten air transport, so that there are no air connections anymore. Examples are Paris-Brussels and Cologne-Frankfurt. If the train stops at a big airport, like Paris and Frankfurt, these short distance airplanes lose an extra advantage for the many travelers who want to go to the airport for a long-distance journey. Airplane tickets can include a train segment for the journey, with guaranteed rebooking if the connection is missed, like normal air travel.
HSR is also competitive with cars on shorter distances, like 50–150 km for example for work commuting if there is road congestion or for people who have expensive parking fees at their work. For large cities this is common. Not every HSR route has such regional high speed trains, but it is common. Introduction of them enlarges the labour market around a large city.
China Southern Airlines, China's largest airline, expects the construction of China's high speed railway network to impact on 25% of its route network in the coming years.
Although air travel has higher speeds, more time is needed for taxiing, boarding (fewer doors), security check, luggage drop, ticket check and more. Also rail stations are usually located nearer to urban centers than airports. These factors often offset the speed advantage of air travel for mid-distance trips.
Rail travel has less weather dependency than air travel. If the rail system is well-designed and well-operated, severe weather conditions such as heavy snow, heavy fog, and storms do not affect the journeys; whereas flights are generally canceled or delayed under these conditions. Nevertheless snow and falling trees because of wind often delay trains.
Although comfort over air travel is often believed to be a trait of high speed rail, it is not inherent; it depends on the specific implementation. For example, high speed trains, which are not subject to compulsory reservation, may carry some standing passengers. Airplanes do not allow standing passengers, so excess passengers are denied boarding. Train passengers can have the choice between standing or waiting for a bookable connection.
From the operator's point of view, a single train can call at multiple stations, often far more stops than aircraft, and each stop takes much less down time. One train stopping pattern can allow a multitude of possible journeys, increasing the potential market. This increase in potential market allows the operator to schedule more frequent departures than the aircraft, and hence create another good reason for preference.
From the point of view of required traffic control systems and infrastructure, high-speed rail has the added advantage of being much simpler to control due to its predictable course, even at very high passenger loads; this issue is becoming more relevant as air traffic reaches its safe limit in busy airspaces over London, New York, and other large centers. However, it must be noted that high speed rail systems eliminate the possibility of traffic collisions with automobiles (adding cost, simplicity, and safety), while other lower speed rail systems that a high speed train uses to reach high speed tracks may have grade crossings.