High Speed Trains

High Speed Train Systems Operate Worldwide

High Speed Train - Bullet Train
Passengers board a CRH (China Railway High-speed) 'bullet train' at Nanjing Railway Station on January 28, 2007 in Nanjing of Jiangsu Province, China. The train can run at a top speed of 250 kph (155 mph). Getty Images

High speed trains are a type of passenger train travel that functions at a speed much higher than that of traditional passenger trains. There are different standards of what constitutes high speed trains based on the train’s speed and technology used however. In the European Union, high speed trains are that which travels 125 miles per hour (200 km/h) or faster, while in the United States it is those that travel 90 mph (145 km/h) or faster.

History of High Speed Trains

Train travel has been a popular form of passenger and freight transport since the early 20th century. The first high speed trains appeared as early as 1933 in Europe and the U.S. when streamliner trains were used to transport goods and people at speeds of around 80 mph (130 km/h). In 1939, Italy introduced its ETR 200 train that had routes from Milan to Florence and was capable of traveling at a top speed of 126 mph (203 km/h). Services and further development for ETR 200 stopped with the beginning of World War II.

After WWII, high speed trains again became a priority in many countries. It was especially important in Japan and in 1957, the Romancecar 3000 SSE was launched in Tokyo. The Romancecar was a narrow gauge train (a narrower area than 4 feet [1.4 m] across between the railroad’s rails) and set a world speed record for its ability to travel 90 mph (145 km/h).

Shortly thereafter in the mid-1960s, Japan introduced the world's first high volume high speed train that operated with a standard (4 ft) gauge. It was called the Shinkansen and officially opened in 1964. It provided rail service between Tokyo and Osaka at speeds of around 135 mph (217 km/h). The word Shinkansen itself means "new main line" in Japanese but because of the trains’ design and speed, they became known around the world as "bullet trains."

After the opening of the bullet trains in Japan, Europe also started developing high capacity high speed trains in 1965 at the International Transport Fair in Munich, Germany. Several high speed trains were tested at the fair but Europe’s high speed rail service was not fully developed until the 1980s.

Today’s High Speed Train Technology

Since the development of high speed rail, there have been many changes in the technology used in high speed trains. One of these is maglev (magnetic levitation), but most high speed trains use other technologies because they are easier to implement and they allow for more direct high speed connections to cities without the need for new tracks.

Today there are high speed trains that use steel wheels on steel tracks that can travel at speeds over 200 mph. Minimal stopping for traffic, long curves, and aerodynamic, light trains also allow today’s high speed trains to travel even faster. In addition, new technologies being implemented in train signaling systems can enable high speed trains to safely minimize time between trains at stations, thereby allowing travel on them to be even more efficient.

Worldwide High Speed Trains

Today, there are many large high speed rail lines around the world. The largest though are found in Europe, China and Japan. In Europe (map), high speed trains operate in Belgium Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Spain, Germany, the U.K. and France currently have the largest high speed train networks in Europe.

High speed trains are also significant in China and Japan (map). China, for example, has the world’s largest high speed rail network at just over 3,728 miles (6,000 km). The network provides service between the country’s major cities using maglev as well as more conventional trains.

Prior to China’s construction of new high speed rail lines in 2007, Japan had the world’s largest high speed train network at 1,528 mi (2,459 km). Today the Shinkansen is highly important there and new maglev and steel wheeled trains are currently being tested.

In addition to these three areas, high speed rail lines are also present as a commuter train in the eastern U.S. and also in South Korea and Taiwan to name a few.

Advantages of High Speed Trains

Once completed and well established, high speed train lines have many advantages over other forms of high capacity public transportation. One of these is that due to infrastructure design in many countries, highway and air travel systems are constrained, cannot expand, and in many cases are overloaded. Because the addition of new high speed rail can also be high capacity, it has the potential relieve congestion on other transit systems.

High speed trains are also considered more energy efficient or equivalent to other modes of transit per passenger mile. In terms of possible passenger capacity, high speed trains can also reduce the amount of land used per passenger when compared to cars on roads. In addition, train stations are normally smaller than airports and can therefore be located within major cities and spaced closer together, allowing for more convenient travel.

Future of High Speed Trains

Because of these advantages, high speed rail use is increasing worldwide. By 2025 Europe plans to dramatically increase its connections (PDF maps) and the EU has a goal of creating a Trans-European high speed train network to connect the entire region. Other examples of future high speed rail plans can be found across the globe from California to Morocco to Saudi Arabia, thus strengthening the importance of high speed trains as a viable form of future public transportation.