Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

High-speed rail

High-speed rail is public transport by rail with a possible speed above 200 km/h (125 miles per hour).

Typically high speed trains travel at top service speeds of between 250 km/h (150 mph) to 300 km/h (180 mph). Although the world speed record for a wheeled train was set in 1990 by a French TGV which reached a speed of 515 km/h (320 mph), the experimental Japanese magnetic levitation train has reached 581 km/h.

Table of contents
1 History
2 High-speed trains vs. automobiles or airplanes
3 Markets for high-speed train
4 High-speed trains in the U.S.
5 High-speed trains in Japan
6 Technology
7 Existing high-speed rail systems


Railways were the first form of mass transportation, and until the invention of the motorcar in the early 20th century, had an effective monopoly on land transport. In the decades after World War II, improvements in automobiles, highways, and aircraft made those means practical for a greater portion of the population than previously. In Europe and Japan emphasis was given to rebuilding the railways after the war. In the United States, emphasis was given to building a huge national highway system (at great expense and with public funds), and airports. Urban mass transport systems in the USA were largely dismantled. The high-speed systems which exist in Europe and Japan today are just the logical continuation of the post-war rebuilding process.

High-speed trains vs. automobiles or airplanes

There are constraints on the growth of the highway and air travel systems, widely cited as congestion, or capacity limits. Airports have limited capacity to serve passenger during peak travel times, as do highways. High speed rail, which has potentially very high capacity on its fixed corridors, offers the promise of relieving congestion on the other systems. Prior to World War II conventional passenger rail was the principal means of intercity transport. Passenger rail service has been seriously downgraded since.

High-speed rail has the advantage over automobiles, in that it can travel at speeds far faster than those possible by automobile, and avoid congestion. For relatively short distances, of less than around 650 km (400 miles), train travel has an advantage over air travel in that it necessitates no long check-in delays, which eliminates the speed advantage of air travel for short-haul flights. Train travel permits far greater frequency of service than is possible with air travel.

Markets for high-speed train

The early markets identified by the French, the Japanese and in the U.S. are to connect pairs of the largest nearby cities. In France this was Paris-Lyon, in Japan Tokyo-Osaka, and in the USA the proposals are in high density areas, with the only high speed rail service in the north-east corridor between Boston - New York - Washington, D.C This was accomplished with minimal expense as the existing railroad infrastructure, built in the 1930s, was then the most advanced in the world.

Market segmentation has principally focused on the business travel market. The French focus on business travelers is reflected in the nature of their rail cars (including the all-important bar-car). Pleasure travel is a secondary market, though many of the French extensions connect with vacation beaches on the Atlantic and Mediterranean. In fact, Friday evenings are the peak time for TGV (Metzler, 1992). The system has lowered prices on long distance travel to compete more effectively with air services, and as a result some cities within an hour of Paris by TGV have become commuter communities, thus increasing the market while restructuring land use.

High speed ground transportation has been a product of planning from the central government in Japan and France. This is by contrast with other modes of transportation—though pro- and anti-free market thinkers might debate the importance or relevance of the point—whose emergence have at least in part been the result of a forceful entrepreneur. Rail's George Stephenson and Peter Cooper, the automobile's Henry Ford, and the airplane's Orville and Wilbur Wright come immediately to mind.

Five years after construction began on the line, on the eve of the Olympics in Tokyo, the first Japanese high speed rail line opened in 1964, connecting the capital with Osaka. This Olympic target date clearly reflects mercantilist interests in the promotion of modern Japan to the world. The French high-speed rail, the TGV, was opened in 1981 by SNCF, the French rail agency, also after many years of planning, beginning in 1966 and construction beginning in 1976. The opening ceremonies were a significant event, being reported internationally, but not associated with a major showpiece such as a World's fair or Olympic Games.

High-speed trains in the U.S.

Depending on how it is defined, high-speed rail in the United States today remains in an early, conceptual stage. The United States efforts have been multi-pronged. Various states have promoted study and design of high speed rail lines, and six corridors have been designated by US DOT for study:
  1. Chicago, Illinois to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, St. Louis, Missouri, Detroit, Michigan,
  2. Miami, Florida-Orlando-Tampa,
  3. Washington, D.C-Richmond, Virginia-Raleigh, North Carolina-Charlotte,
  4. San Diego, California-Los Angeles-Sacramento,
  5. Eugene, Oregon-Portland-Seattle, Washington-Vancouver (Canada),
  6. New York City-Albany, New York-Buffalo.

The Clinton Administration proposed a High Speed Rail Development Act (1993) to study the issues involved and provide seed money. Money was set aside in ISTEA (1991) for mag-lev development, and proposals for deployment have been made in Orlando and Texas, but there is still no operating maglev in revenue earning passenger service. Amtrak's northeast corridor has been electrified and seen elimination of grade crossings.

In terms of its top-down planning, the development of high-speed rail in the United States borrows conceptually from the interstate highway system. Typically modes emerge without either significant or central planning at the outset. Examples include air travel, highways, and rail. Later, central planning is tacked on, as when the government established specific trans-continental routes, or began funding airports or the interstate highways. In all likelihood this probably confirms high speed rail's role as a successor to conventional rail rather than holding status as a new mode on its own.

Operationally, the systems are largely adapted from conventional rail systems, with similar labor organization and ownership in Japan and France and similar architectures in many other respects.

High-speed trains in Japan

In 1967, after the Tokaido Shinkansen was deployed, a second line, the Sanyo Shinkansen was begun. The inter-relationship between land development and the high speed rail network was recognized, leading, in 1970, to the enaction in Japan of a law for the construction of a nationwide Shinkansen railway network in order to expand the network. By 1973, the Transport Minister approved construction plans for five additional lines and basic plans for twelve others. Despite the approval, financial consideration intervened; the cost of the five lines (five trillion yen, or fifty billion dollars at 100 yen to the dollar, a somewhat hopeful exchange rate), combined with the oil shock and recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s resulted in their delay until 1989. Ironically, high oil prices, which should increase the relative demand for non-oil based transportation such as high speed rail, delayed their construction.

The new Japanese lines are also not "Full Shinkansen", with all of the characteristics of high speed rail. Rather they are mixed, and thus less expensive technology, combining narrow gauge and wider gauge lines on the same structures. New structures allow for eventual upgrade, but existing narrow-gauge structures are kept in places, allowing the bullet train to use them, but not at the higher speeds. As with its inauguration, the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano Japan were a target for the opening of a rail line extension: Hokuriku Shinkansen (Tokyo to Nagano) got open under this scheme just in time.

Within Japan, some of the most significant changes in the mode's growth phase has been the break-up and privatization of the rail system, begun in 1987. The hope is that restructuring leads to more efficient and profitable methods in the passenger rail sector. Incremental improvements to the high speed rail technology are continuously being undertaken, and the network continues to be expanded. As an example of improvements, the travel time from Tokyo to Shin Osaka (the first route opened), has decreased from 4 hours in 1964, to 2 hours and 30 minutes.


Much of the technology behind high-speed rail is an improved application of existing technology. By building a new rail infrastructure with 20th century engineering, including elimination of constrictions such as roadway at-grade crossings, frequent stops, a succession of curves and reverse curves, and not sharing the right-of-way with freight or slower passenger trains, higher speeds (250 - 300 km/hr) are maintained. A record speed of 515 km/hr has been run using TGV technology. Thus it's conventional and compatible with existing systems. The French TGV trains typically run over older track at standard speeds combined with segments on new tracks, to provide an overall high speed, one seat journey to many destinations.

In France, the cost of construction is minimized by adopting steeper grades rather than building tunnels and viaducts. Because the lines are dedicated to passengers, grades of 3.5%, rather than the previous maximum of 1-1.5% for mixed traffic, are used. Possibly more expensive land is acquired in order to build straighter lines which minimize line construction as well as operating and maintenance costs. In other countries high speed rail was built without those economies so that the railway can also support other traffic, such as freight.

Existing high-speed rail systems

High-speed rail systems include: