How Fast do High-Speed Rail Systems Go?


High-speed rail systems are not the world’s most popular form of transportation, but in some parts of some countries, they are the preferred route. Learning more about high-speed rail systems, where they’re located, and how fast they go is fascinating – and it might just help you plan your next trip, too! 

The speed of a high-speed train varies based on factors like the technology used, the terrain over which they travel, the number of stops between stretches, and laws in their home countries. High-speed trains can usually reach top speeds of around 190 mph to 220 mph, though the average top speed ranges from 120 mph to 160 mph. The Shanghai Maglev in China is the world’s fastest high-speed train and reaches a top speed of 286 miles per hour. 

World's Top 10 Countries Having...
World's Top 10 Countries Having Largest Railway Network

Countries with High-Speed Rail Systems

As of 2022, there are numerous countries that offer high-speed passenger rail systems. These include the United Kingdom, China, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Portugal, Poland, Japan, France, Germany, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. Surprisingly, the United States is nowhere to be found on this list. Although passenger train travel is possible in America, the rail lines that are popular here – namely Amtrak – are not considered high-speed when compared to the rail lines that are offered in other countries. 

The difference here is that all of the countries listed here have invested very heavily in their rail systems, and because those systems are so inherently safe, people continue to utilize them. Their popularity has exploded in those nations, and continued investment keeps them safe, funds new technologies, and makes the overall ride more comfortable – and often faster – for the passengers. 

acela express

Exploring Some Popular High-Speed Rail Lines

The Shinkansen in Japan

The Tokaido Shinkansen was commenced in 1964, and it not only marked a new era of travel for Japanese commuters, but it also opened the door to high-speed rail travel around the world. The fact that the first high-speed rail opened in such a mountainous country made virtually anything seem possible, which is why so many other nations followed suit in the decades after the Shinkansen. 

To build the Shinkansen, engineers had to blast huge tunnels right through the mountains, and thousands of bridges were built from one pass to another. The planning began in the 1940s, and the rail would move between Tokyo and Shiminoseki at a top speed of 120 mph. Building was halted during the war, but restarted again in the 50s with a new plan to connect Tokyo to Osaka. When the line opened in 1964, commuters could travel between the two cities in half the time, and by 1976, they had a billion passengers under their belt. As of the time of writing, there has never been a fatality on Japan’s Shinkansen rail line. 

The TGV in France

This rail line was no doubt inspired by the success of the Shinkansen and the fact that France was already experimenting with Aerotrains, which used air cushion levitation. Though there was much hope for Aerotrain, it was later abandoned for more conventional high-speed rail. Their first iteration commenced testing in 1972 and was called the TGV 001, and it set a record for fossil-fuel powered passenger trains at 198 mph. 

Unfortunately, the sheer volume of fossil fuel required became too expensive for France, so they swapped to electric trains powered by overhead lines. It was very popular among French residents, and they found that ticket prices were very affordable compared to other high-speed train routes that existed across the nation. Ridership continues to increase each year, and the TGV is also adding new lines to serve more locations. 

Ian Leech

The CHR in China

China’s CHR is the largest high speed rail network in the world today when it comes to sheer mileage. The country’s system didn’t truly qualify as high speed until 2007, and since then, it has developed rapidly. The CHR changed the way of life for many Chinese citizens, who struggled to travel around the nation on other forms of public transportation. China began testing high speed networks in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that modern high speed rail travel gained any kind of attention. That occurred when Chinese government officials took a trip to Japan and wanted the same reliability and efficiency as the Shinkansen system there 

China’s efforts ramped up in 1997, and they started with sub-high-speed lines that hit maximum speeds of 100 mph to 124 mph on the Guangzhou-Shenzhen railway. They introduced a Maglev system not long after, which proved to be much faster than their conventional trains. It could hit a speed of up to 268mph, and it could travel from the airport to downtown in just 7.5 minutes. Rather than expanding the Maglev technology, though, they brought conventional high-speed rail between Shanghai and Hangzhou; implementing more Maglev routes was simply too expensive. The Maglev is still the fastest passenger train in the world, and at only about $10 a ticket, it’s also affordable. 

Today, there are numerous dedicated high-speed lines across China, and it’s a favored way to travel among the citizens. There are some 18,000 miles of high-speed track there, and this will soon expand to include more than 24,000 miles. 

china high speed
Domingo Kauak

Germany’s Intercity Express

Germany’s high-speed rail system is called the Intercity Express, and it crosses several borders to serve citizens in France, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands. This system went into place soon after the TGV in France, but it didn’t get off the ground until 1985 due to political disagreements. In 1988, the rail line set a world record for high-speed travel by hitting a top speed of 253 mph. 

The service opened to the public in 1991 with ICE 1 trains, and they ran with hourly service between the cities of Hamburg and Altona. Later, they added numerous other lines to run north to south and east to west, connecting all the major cities across the country and vastly improving the national economy. 

Matt Spencer

The Safety of High-Speed Rail Travel

Despite the fact that the China Negev travels 280+ miles per hour while hovering above the track, it remains the safest means of travel in that nation – and in all other nations, for that matter. It is even safer than flying globally; more deaths have been reported due to aircraft accidents than rail accidents, even when adjusting for the commencement date of high-speed travel across the various nations. There have been accidents involving high-speed rail, including a devastating accident in Spain in 2013, a German crash in Eschede in 1988, and another crash in China in 2011 in which two trains collided head-on, but when compared to other forms of travel, it remains the safest by a wide margin. 

A National Safety Council Review found that car riders and passengers are 10 times more likely to die as high-speed rail passengers. A 2011 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics pointed out that in the years between 1990 and 2011, 900,000 people died on highways and roadways as the result of car crashes while less than 15,000 people died as the result of train collisions. Services that are well-managed and maintained, such as the bullet trains found all over France and Japan, are incredibly safe – so safe, in fact, that ridership continues to increase every year. No one has ever died as the result of a high-speed train crash in either country in the 40 years their rail systems have been operating, and that’s an impressive feat. 

The Benefits of High-Speed Rail Systems

While there are always some who argue that there is never a need to travel at speeds in excess of 100 mph, people who commute to work each day on one of the many high-speed rail systems around the world beg to differ. The introduction of high-speed trains cut many commute times in half, and in some cases, they reduced it by as much as 75% by allowing direct connections between many of those countries’ economic hubs. We live in a world today where people will take the best opportunities for themselves and their families, even if that means a two-hour commute one way. Four hours per day is equal to 20 hours in a single work week, or almost a full day spent simply traveling. If high-speed rail cuts that in half, people are getting much of their lives back. That extra 10 hours a week can mean the difference between good performance at work and exhaustion, or between having time to spend with their families or spending that time sleeping. 

In the nations where high-speed rail is a popular means of travel, it is also one of the most economical ways to travel. Tickets to ride the Maglev in China cost only about $10, and in some situations, the Maglev can get them to work even faster than hopping a flight. People can save tons of money every year thanks to the affordability of high-speed rail travel, and that’s excellent news not only for those families, but also for the local economies. Less money spent on transportation means more money that they can use to fuel other businesses and less dependence on government-backed social welfare systems. 

longest amtrak route
On Amtrak’s high-speed Northeast Corridor, two Acela trains pass each other near Crum Lynn, Pennsylvania. Note the elevated curve, concrete ties, and tie clips.

Furthermore, cost savings for individuals can be realized in everything from fuel savings to automobile maintenance. A family that can commute to work for $10 a day rather than driving to work for $15 a day in fuel saves a great deal of money over the course of a year. What’s more, by vastly reducing the number of miles being put on their personal vehicles, there’s less maintenance to worry about, and that can also save thousands a year. In fact, across many parts of Europe and Asia, automobile ownership is quite rare because of the sheer availability of safe, efficient, and affordable public transportation available to the people. 

Cities and urban areas benefit from the introduction of high-speed rail, as well. If a rail line stops in a city’s downtown area, it will inevitably bring more people with it, and those people will spend money, whether they do so at a boutique on the corner or the fast food restaurant down the street. Aside from this, there’s a vast reduction in fuel and oil dependence, especially in European and Asian countries, where trains tend to run on electricity. This saves entire nations money and makes them far less dependent on their oil-rich neighbors – and that’s always a good thing. 

The Future of High Speed Rail

Americans are interested in all of the benefits of high-speed rail, but as of 2022, it is nonexistent in this nation. Some train lines, such as the Amtrak Acela, can reach top speeds of 150 mph, but they are very specialized lines that only exist in one part of the country. The debate about high-speed rail travel in the United States has been ongoing for decades. It’s interesting to note that the US has a larger market share in terms of freight trains than its Asian and European friends. We use freight trains to move goods all the way across the country, but can’t seem to agree on whether moving people across the country using the very same technologies utilized in China, Germany, and Japan is a good idea. 

eurostar
Richard Dyke

It’s true that the American infrastructure is in no condition for high-speed rail operation. There are some buildouts here and there, but for the most part, the sheer investment that would be required to connect cities across the country with high-speed rail is mind-boggling. It would take decades to produce, and at a time when material costs are at an all-time high, many government officials simply don’t want to undertake it. However, the long-term implications could be huge, especially if we implement high-speed rail for freight first. E-commerce is booming, and rerouting it to facilitate the increased demand for fast delivery could make for huge improvements in the American economy. 

As for bringing high-speed passenger rail to the United States, it isn’t something that anyone expects to see in the next half-century despite the overwhelming success in other nations. Perhaps one day when foreign oil is no longer a commodity, the need for electric high-speed train travel will outweigh the fear associated with the massive undertaking. 

 

Josef

Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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