Travel topics > Transportation > Rail travel > High-speed rail
High-speed rail (often abbreviated to "HSR") is an ongoing development in rail travel, and involves trains that can travel at least 250 km/h (144 mph) on purpose-built tracks. The fastest trains are capable of speeds in excess of 400 km/h (250 mph), though operational top speeds in day-to-day service are often limited to 300 km/h (186 mph) or less. Most definitions also include upgrade legacy tracks if speeds are 200 km/h (125 mph) or higher in revenue service and some "high speed" rail services contain no purpose-built tracks whatsoever. Many rail enthusiasts like high-speed trains because of their sleek streamlined designs, which are meant to improve efficiency and reduce air resistance, their modernity and of course their breathtaking speed!
High-speed rail is often faster than flying, if you take into account the time it takes to get to the airport and through security checks, as well as the usually faster boarding procedures for trains. This is particularly true for journeys between relatively nearby cities, and the regions where high-speed rail is most prevalent (western Europe and east Asia) have many large cities in close proximity to one another. A train journey is usually faster than going by plane if it takes three hours or less.
Many high speed rail services are aimed at business travellers and the fare structure and on-board amenities (e.g. wifi, a place to hang a suit etc.) tend to reflect this.
The vast majority of High speed trains are electrical multiple units (EMUs), which means they are driven by electricity and have their motive power distributed over most or all of the train instead of concentrated in a single locomotive. This has several technological advantages and means that a design where some passengers sitting directly behind the driver can see the tracks through the front window is easy to implement and has been done on some German ICEs.
The first ever high-speed rail line was Japan's Shinkansen (Bullet Train), with its first line, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, completed in 1964. When first completed, it transported passengers between the cities of Tokyo and Osaka in a then-record time of 4 hours, compared to the 6 hours 10 minutes the journey took using conventional railway lines. Since then, technology has improved considerably, with the journey time on the fastest Nozomi trains between Tokyo and Osaka now taking 2 hours 22 minutes, and the operating speed of Shinkansen trains having been increased from 210 km/h when it first opened in 1964 to 320 km/h today.
For over a decade, the Shinkansen remained the only high-speed rail network in the world, until the completion of the first line of the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) in France in 1981, which broke the Shinkansen's speed record and ushered in a new age of rail travel in Europe. Subsequently, many European countries introduced their own high-speed rail services, one of the most iconic being Germany's Intercity-Express (ICE) in 1991, which in turn broke the speed record of the TGV before France got it back. In modern times, Europe is served by an extensive network of high-speed rail lines, and is the only place in which high-speed trains cross international borders. The development of high-speed rail in Europe has revolutionized long distance travel, with many of what were formerly the world's busiest air corridors now being among the most popular high-speed rail routes instead.
Continental East Asian countries have sought to emulate the success of high-speed rail services in Japan and Europe, by building networks of their own. In particular, China has been going on a building spree of new rail lines, and now boasts the longest high-speed rail network in the world. In more recent years other countries have also gotten into the game with Turkey the first country outside East Asia or Europe to have HSR and Saudi Arabia planning to become the first Arab country with HSR. Many other plans were canceled due to the recent economic crisis or have been put on hold for what appears to be indefinitely. Speed records for rail vehicles are still being set and depending on what you count are either held by France (fastest wheel on rails train), Japan (fastest maglev) or a Siemens built locomotive on German tracks (the French record is of a multiple unit, not a locomotive hauled train) which is very similar to the locomotive that pulls the Railjet of ÖBB.
By Region and Country
Currently, high-speed rail lines only run in Asia and Europe. While plans for high-speed rail services have been mooted in the United States, Canada and Australia, the popularity of private car ownership and air travel, as well as political wrangling over the massive amount of capital required for such projects, mean that for now, high-speed rail is likely to remain a distant dream for the foreseeable future. One of two exceptions to this is the Amtrak's Acela Express on the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, where trains briefly achieve 240 km/h (150 mph). The service either narrowly makes or misses most definitions of high-speed rail, though its average speed certainly lags far behind most high-speed rail services in Europe and Asia. On the other hand actual dirt has been shovelled and contracts awarded on a new High-Speed line in California, though continued political wrangling means that it remains to be seen whether the project will be completed on time, if at all. Projects in other states of the US are either farther from completion or not actually high-speed.
In other parts of the world, plans for high-speed rail have been "suggested" or "studied" with varying degrees of seriousness, though little construction usually comes of such announcements. An exception to this rule seems to be Morocco where most of the construction of the first African high-speed rail line is already done, with the line planned to open in 2018. Many other plans and announcements for new high-speed rail (even in countries with already existing networks) have been shelved or put on hold due to the worldwide economic crisis and it is anybody's guess which – if any – of those projects will ever get built.
- China Railway High-speed (中国高速铁路) (CRH) – Cross-border services into Hong Kong are planned. Plans for other international routes have been announced, but no construction has started as of 2016.
- Shinkansen (新幹線), also known as the Bullet Train. The original High-speed rail service, operated by the JR companies that are the privatized successor of Japan's state railways. Trains are fast, clean and on time, but prices are higher than in Europe or other Asian countries.
- Korea Train eXpress (한국고속철도) (KTX)
- Taiwan High Speed Rail (台灣高速鐵路) (THSR), currently a single line connecting the north and south of the island along its western shore. THSR has greatly reduced domestic flights.
Turkish State Railways' Yüksek Hızlı Tren (YHT) currently has two routes in operation, both originating in Ankara. One links to Pendik (a suburb of Istanbul) via Eskişehir and the other branches off from that line to offer service to Konya. A tunnel under the Bosphorus is under construction to allow the YHT to extend from Istanbul into Europe.
While several new and upgraded lines have a design speed of 250km/h, actual maximum speed is currently limited to 230km/h, which is reached by both the Austrian locomotive hauled Railjet and ICE trainsets operated by both ÖBB (Austrian State Railways) and Deutsche Bahn (German State Railways). The fare structure of ÖBB is similar to DB, though sometimes walk-up fares are a bit cheaper.
Due to the country's small size, Belgium's high-speed network is centred around international services, and accordingly all high-speed services in the country are operated by foreign companies (Deutsche Bahn, Eurostar, SNCF and Thalys) rather than by the National Railway Company. Brussels is nonetheless connected to Antwerp and Liege by high-speed lines.
The French national rail company SNCF operates the famous Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) to most major cities in the country, along an extensive network of purpose-built lines (270-320 km/h) and in part along older and much slower lines. There is also a low-cost high-speed service run by the SNCF but separate to the TGV, called Ouigo, which operates from Marne-la-Vallée (near Disneyland Paris) on some routes north, west and south.
Deutsche Bahn's Intercity-Express (ICE) operates to many cities around Germany, though the network is slightly less well-developed than other European countries (but catching up fast). The older Intercity trains are capable of speeds up to 200 km/h and are not marketed as "high speed" even though similar trains in other countries get this designation.
Italy is served by two different high-speed rail companies. The Frecciarossa is run by Trenitalia, the Italian national railway company. Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV) is a private company, with Ferrari being one of the investors. They serve their routes with a TGV-derived train known as the Italo.
The Netherlands have one dedicated high-speed line and a number of improved traditional railway lines. Services are operated by Deutsche Bahn and Thalys, rather than by Nederlandse Spoorwegen. High-speed Thalys trains run between Amsterdam and Rotterdam Centraal stations, via Schiphol Airport, and across the border into Belgium. ICE Trains from Germany run along traditional-speed lines.
While there are no purpose-built high-speed lines in Poland, national rail operator PKP refers to its 200 km/h Pendolino trains as a high speed rail service (Kolej dużych prędkości). The trains link Warsaw to Gdynia, Katowice, Krakow and Wroclaw. Plans for faster trains were recently abandoned in favor of - at least according to the official announcement - more general improvements around the whole network.
Russian Railways' Sapsan (Сапсан) has services from Moscow to St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod. Some other lines are either under construction or planned, including the Moscow–Kazan line which potentially could be the first section of a high-speed line to Beijing.
Renfe's Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) is one of the largest systems in the world, second only to China in total length. While the current economic crisis has slowed the boom of new construction for the time being (and the connection to Portugal has been put on hold indefinitely), Renfe has lowered prices to keep passenger numbers up.
Switzerland, being small, compact and very mountainous, has no high speed rail lines, though it does receive ICE and TGV trains from Germany and France respectively, which make use of classic lines. The Lötschberg Base Tunnel allows trains to run at 250km/h along its 35km length. Similarly the Gotthard Base Tunnel while primarily intended for freight trains has a design speed of 250 km/h which makes it a "high speed" line once it opens, though a short one.
The UK currently has one purpose-built high-speed line, between London St Pancras station and the Channel Tunnel. Domestic services are operated on the line by Southeastern Highspeed between London and several towns in Kent. The trains, nicknamed the "Javelin", operate at 140 mph (225 km/h). Other intercity routes in the UK are slower, generally operating at 125 mph (200 km/h), and though a national high-speed rail network is planned, it is not scheduled for completion until the early 2030s, with earlier phases opening during the 2020s.
- Eurostar connects the United Kingdom to France and Belgium via the Channel Tunnel services to the Netherlands have been announced for the near future
- The ICE crosses the borders into most of Germany's neighbors (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Switzerland, but not Luxembourg, Poland or the Czech Republic). The connection to Denmark is unique in many ways as a Diesel ICE (which is not technically high speed but is treated as part of the ICE brand regardless) is loaded onto a ferry for crossing from Fehmarn.
- Railjet trains cross from Austria into some neighboring countries, namely the Czech Republic, Germany and Hungary, but are limited to 160 km/h outside of Austria and Germany due to infrastructure concerns.
- The TGV also crosses borders into many of France's neighbors, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and Switzerland (where the service is known as TGV Lyria). The service between France and Germany is jointly operated by the SNCF and Deutsche Bahn, with ICE and TGV trains running on both sides of the border. A similar arrangement works between the SNCF and Spanish company Renfe for journeys between France and Spain.
- Thalys connects France to Belgium and the Netherlands as well as Germany
Tickets and prices
In many regards railways that run high-speed lines have taken a page out of the play book of (no frills) aviation. This means an emphasis on fast turnaround times as well as a ticketing system intended to maximize occupancy as well as revenue. As a customer, be prepared for two things: relatively low (and widely advertised) special offers for off peak trains or early booking and high walk up fares. SNCF and DB are particularly notorious for this with tickets "from" 29€ or even 19€ but reaching well into the triple digits when bought on the train. In Britain the same holds true even for non high-speed trains.
Japan on the other hand offers relatively few discounts and comparatively high fixed prices. In South Korea and Taiwan, high-speed trains have fixed prices that are significantly more expensive than conventional trains, but nevertheless much more reasonable than those in Japan. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all offer rail passes that can be used only by foreign tourists, and these can be used to limit the damage if you are planning to do a lot of long distance travelling, but are generally not worth it if you plan to stick to one city or its immediate vicinity.
If the average of all tickets sold is taken, hsr tickets are similarly priced in Spain, France and Germany while being significantly more expensive in Japan. The Acela Express serving the Northeast Corridor is even more expensive (on a per km basis) than the Shinkansen.
High-speed rail in China is very expensive for the average working class Chinese, but is reasonably priced by Western standards.
Interestingly enough, many railways offering high-speed service have returned to a three class system that was abolished in Europe in the 1950s with the withdrawal of (old) first class and the "uptitling" of second and third class. On many high speed trains even regular "coach" or "second" class offers more comfort than its equivalent on slower trains. But if you (or your employer) are willing to shell out top Euro, you can get business class, premium class, club class or any of the various names the marketing department has come up with. Whether the extra money is worth it depends both on your perception and the different operators, but included bonuses (such as newspapers, breakfast or coffee) are usually spelled out on the website of the operator and they usually also show pictures of their "premium" seats.
Statistically speaking, despite several high profile crashes in Germany, Spain and China, high-speed rail is one of the safest ways to travel. Rail travel in general has a better safety record than road travel, with car drivers being ten times more likely to die in an accident than railway passengers. In particular, dedicated high-speed rail tracks usually do not have level crossings, tend to be built and upgraded with the latest safety features, and rely on the most cutting edge technology to prevent accidents. As such, high-speed rail lines tend to have better safety records than conventional rail lines. As a testament to the safety of high-speed rail, Japan's Shinkansen has never had a fatal crash since the network began operation, not even during major earthquakes and tsunamis.
High-speed rail travel is usually regarded as an environmentally-friendly way to get around, as the carbon footprint is almost always lower than that of aviation, usually than that of driving and sometimes less than on standard rail or bus services. This comparison of "greenness" of course depends on how the electricity used is produced. The initial construction of the infrastructure also produces noticeable environmental effects, which serves to complicate such comparisons. Most rail companies draw their electricity from a combination of railway only power plants and the general grid. Due to various technical and economic considerations railway power plants are often hydro-power, nuclear or coal fired thermal plants with wind, solar and gas fired plants historically playing marginal roles. However, due to increasing costs of fuels and in order to market rail travel as "green" more and more railway companies strive to increase their share of renewable energy.
Magnetic levitation, or maglev trains have the potential to travel at speeds in excess of 600 km/h, largely due to the reduced friction from levitating above the track. The only maglev service currently in operation is the Shanghai maglev (上海磁浮), which makes the 30.5 km journey from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to Longyang Road near Shanghai's city center, hitting a top speed of up to 441 km/h.
No intercity maglev lines are currently in operation, though Japan is planning to open a maglev Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Nagoya by 2027.