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What Is High-Speed Rail?

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Beginning with Japan in the 1960s, more and more countries are embracing high-speed trains to streamline domestic travel. Operating at speeds often in excess of 160 mph, high-speed rail networks are now well-developed across Europe and, more recently, in China.


JR Shinkansen

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High-speed rail (HSR) is a form of rail transportation that utilizes specialized rolling stock (i.e., all of the component vehicles of a train, like the locomotive and passenger carriages) and track systems to run at substantially greater speeds than traditional rail systems. One definition designates existing lines running at speeds exceeding 200 kph (120 mph) as HSR, as well as new lines running over 250 kph (160 mph). In the countries where it exists, HSR competes with air transport as a means to traverse long distances. The vast majority of HSR lines are designed for passenger transport.

High-speed rail in the current sense of the term got its start in 1964 with the Japanese Shinkansen (“new trunk line”), often referred to as the “bullet train.” The Shinkansen initially ran at speeds of 210 kph (130 mph). Prior to the Shinkansen, top speeds on commercial rail lines throughout the world hovered around 180 kph (111 mph), with average speeds in the 135 kph (84 mph) range. Japan’s Shinkansen was a breakthrough development in passenger rail transport, paving the way for similar systems now operational in Europe, China, South Korea, Russia, Turkey, and a number of other countries.

As opposed to more exotic technologies like maglev or hyperloop, high-speed rail resembles traditional rail in that it uses continuously welded tracks as a guiding system, typically of the 1,435 mm standard gauge. However, HSR lines need distinct ground infrastructure to operate, and are not usually integrated with other rail lines. This makes HSR systems costly to build and operate. Speeds are significantly slower than commercial aircraft, but by sharing stops and stations with existing local transit, HSR can cut travel times on shorter regional trips by eliminating the need to travel to and wait at airports often located far from urban cores.

Following Japan’s development of the Shinkansen, France was the next nation to debut commercial high-speed rail. Its TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) system got its start with a Paris-Lyon connector in 1981. Germany followed suit with its Inter-City Express (ICE) lines in 1991. Today, an integrated HSR network crisscrosses Europe, made possible in part by European Union law and funding. In more recent years, China has emerged as the world’s undisputed HSR leader in terms of sheer length of lines constructed. It has built over 27,000 kilometers (16,777 miles) of track since it began HSR construction in 2008, and has set a goal of 38,000 km (23,600 miles) by 2025. By comparison, other leaders like Japan, France, Germany, and Spain have each built around 3,000 kilometers (1,680 miles) of HSR.

The late 20th-century expansion of high-speed rail in Japan and Europe, and China’s more recent skyrocketing HSR capacity, has fueled debate over why advanced rail technology hasn’t taken off in the United States, and whether it should at all. Amtrak’s Acela Express service is the only U.S. rail line that currently incorporates segments of HSR, attaining speeds of up to 240 kph (150 mph) but averaging around 135 kph (84 mph). By contrast, Shinkansen lines operate at speeds up to 320 kph (200 mph). Acela and other fast services running below 150 mph are sometimes referred to as “higher speed rail” to distinguish them from modern HSR, which typically exceeds that speed.

A range of reasons have been put forward to explain U.S. reluctance to develop high-speed rail. They range from the logistical (the United States’ low-density, high-distance geography lends itself better to air travel), to the cultural (prevalent car culture has stymied transit and passenger rail overall), to the ideological (rail transport may be seen as incompatible with American “individualism”). 

Nevertheless, there are plans in motion to introduce more high-speed and “higher speed” rail in the United States. California’s high-profile HSR line, meant to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, is still moving forward despite cost increases, delays, and uncertain federal funding. Amtrak’s Acela service on the East Coast is currently upgrading its trainsets, with new rolling stock set to enter service in 2021. And a number of other HSR projects are on the drawing board in places like Texas, Florida, the Southwest, and the Southeast.