Trains have been around since the beginning of the 19th century, and are responsible for most of the economic growth in countries throughout the world. Since their beginning, technology has evolved to allow trains to travel at record high speeds.
So, how fast do trains go? In North America, the fastest train, the Acela Express, reaches speeds of 155 mph, in Europe, the French TGV and German ICE travels at a speed of 186 mph (300 klm). In Asia, the Japanese Shinkansen travels at a speed of 200 mph.
Train speeds vary from around the globe, as many factors contribute to the allowable train speeds. Asia has the fastest trains, as it is famous for its high speed and efficient operations.
|Revenue: 200 mph
Record: 357.2 mph
|Revenue: 200-224 mph
Record: 275.3 mph
|186 mph (300 kp/h)
|Intercity Express (ICE)
|220 mph (350 kp/h)
Capable of 220 mph
|RENFE AVE Train
|193 mph (310 km/h)
In the early 20th century, North America had some of the fastest trains in the world. Commanded by the Pennsylvania Railroad, Reading Company, and the Central Railroad Company of New Jersey (CNJ), these railroads sped throughout the northeast and out to Chicago at speeds of over 100 mph. Some of the most lucrative routes were to the Jersey shore, where the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Reading raced each other to Atlantic City, NJ, the two routes in view of each other for miles.
Beginning in the 1930s, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q), began experimenting with their streamlined “Pioneer Zephyr” train sets. These were diesel powered train sets built by Budd in an effort to replace the steam powered passenger trains in their fleet. The train entered revenue service in 1934 and began revenue service between Kansas City and Omaha, at speeds of up to 112 mph. This was effectively the first diesel streamliner in the United States. Although the Pioneer Zephyr was successful, it was soon replaced by the EMD E-series of locomotives.
Because of the success and efficiency of high speed trains in Asia, the U.S. government decided to determine whether or not a similar system could be implemented in the U.S., as several high trafficked corridors would prove viable candidates. In the 1990s, Amtrak began looking at the prospect of a high speed train on their lucrative Northeast Corridor route, which is the densely crowded route between Boston and Washington D.C. Amtrak began experimenting with high speed train sets, such as the German ICE and the Swedish ABB X2000.
Eventually, Amtrak settled on a design by Bombardier, who would build twenty train sets for the corridor. Extensive upgrades had to be made in order for the route to accept the new trains, such as improving track infrastructure, as well as electrifying the portion of the route to Boston. The Acela sets are able to travel at speeds of 220 mph, however, infrastructure along the route only allows for 125 mph running for most of the journey, with an exception being made for a portion of track in Rhode Island, where 155 mph running is permitted.
In the late seventies, Via Rail Canada began proposing the idea of a high speed train in Canada. However, electrification would prove rather costly, and was not feasible during the time. Thus, VIA turned to Quebec’s Bombardier to construct 31 tilting Light Rapid Comfortable (LRC) train sets which would operate on the Quebec City- Windsor Corridor until 2001, when the LRC locomotives were retired from service, however, the passenger cars remain in use, albeit without their tilt system activated.
These train sets were capable of 130 mph running, however, due to traveling on the same route as freight, it was reduced to 100 mph. Additionally, for a short time in the early eighties, Amtrak tested these locomotives on their un-electrified New York-Boston Corridor, however, found them inadequate for their services and were returned in 1982.
North America encompasses a vast freight rail network that is the largest in the world, as thousands of freight trains move about the continent daily. Oftentimes, the top speed of a freight locomotive is either 65-70 mph, which is commonplace with most modern locomotives. However, there are many factors that contribute to the speed of freight traffic, such as track and signal infrastructure, and presence of grade crossings and bridges, which constitutes the average speed of freight trains being just 21.5 mph. For example, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) limits freight trains to 49 mph, in territory that lacks block signaling, also known as “dark territory”. The FRA has established a set speed limit for each class of track for both freight and passenger traffic. Additionally, these speed limits and class systems are the same in Canada.
|Class of Track
|Less than 10 mph
Information courtesy Federal Railroad Administration
European countries have always commanded a vast and advanced high speed rail network. The German Intercity Express (ICE), has been traveling at speeds of up to 200 mph since its introduction into service in 1985. The ICE train network encompasses one of the vastest routes in Europe, completing various international routes daily. The ICE trains are operated by Siemens Velaro train sets, which are widely utilized by various railway companies worldwide.
Another renowned European high speed network, France’s TGV, reaches speeds of up to 200 mph. On a record setting run in 2007, a modified TGV duplex train dubbed “V150”, reached 357.2 mph on the LGV Est between Paris-Strasbourg. Although this test successful shattered any previous records, the TGV operates its revenue services at 200 mph.
Freight train speeds in Europe vary, as each country has cited its own regulations due to locomotive and rail car capability, as well as infrastructure integrity. In the United Kingdom, the fastest freight trains classified as Class 4, can reach speeds of up to 75 mph. While in Germany, freight trains reach speeds of up to 99 mph (160 kp/h) for lighter freight trains, and 74.5 mph (120 kp/h) for heavier trains.
At one time France commanded the world’s fastest freight trains, as seven TGV Sud-Est sets were converted to transport overnight freight and mail in 1984. Called the “TGV La Poste” after the country’s mail carrier, the trains traveled at speeds of up to 168 mph (270 kp/h). However, due to operational and logistical changes, the overnight mail was to be transported via containers, effectively marking the end of the TGV La Poste service.
Asia encompasses perhaps the quickest and most efficient passenger rail travel in the world. China and Japan, known for their high speed trains, have perfected their logistics and operations. In China, there are various high speed rail lines connecting the country’s most populous areas. High speed passenger rail in China is considered to be a line that is dedicated to the high speed train sets, and are to travel at no less than speeds of 155 mph.
As high speed rail in China has continued to evolve, technologically advanced train sets and infrastructure improvements are at the forefront of the continuation of the services. Furthermore, China’s Beijing-Guangzhou Railway is the longest railway in the world, measuring in at 1,428 miles (2,298 km).
Perhaps the most advanced and punctual high speed rail system is in Japan. The Shinkansen, operated by Japanese Railways, is known for its on-time performance and world class speed shuffles commuters around the country at speeds of up to 200 mph (320 kp/h). The Skinkansen is also known for its record shattering run in 1996, reaching the speed of 275 mph. Punctuality on the Shinkansen is held to the highest caliber, as the services are rarely late, and when they do stray from the set schedule, it is only by mere seconds.
Rail freight in Japan is usually hauled in the evening hours, and travels at speeds of up to 68 mph (110 kp/h), which is usually achieved by intermodal or container trains. Japan Railways freight has developed a tank wagon for crude oil and gasoline that will be able to travel at speeds of up to 59 mph (110 kp/h), a vast improvement from previous examples. (Japan Railway & Transport Review)
What Makes High Speed Rail Successful?
High speed rail systems are successful because of the dedicated track allotted for their operation, as their speed is not hindered by slower local trains and other rail traffic. Furthermore, the proper track and signal infrastructure must be implemented to allow high speed running. Additionally, technologically advanced train sets with tilting mechanisms are imperative for banking into turns that normal trains would not be able to achieve at speed. As technology continues to advance, and train speeds continue to increase, the future of the world’s high speed rail network looks bright.