Image: InterCityExpress (Germany)
Istockphoto/ Maciej Noskowski
The third-generation ICE trains currently in service can whisk passengers from Dresden to Düsseldorf at speeds of 205 mph; and the system is integrated into the rail networks of neighboring Belgium, the Netherlands and France. Meanwhile, Germany continues to develop its Transrapid maglev (magnetic levitation) train, which has clocked speeds of 342 mph in testing.
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updated 11/15/2007 4:19:40 PM ET 2007-11-15T21:19:40

They are getting bigger, better and faster than ever.

Around the world, high-speed train systems are on the move. In China, you can ride between Shanghai Airport and downtown on a futuristic magnetic levitation (maglev) train that jets along at 267 mph. The ride takes less than eight minutes. In England, newly upgraded tracks for the continent’s Eurostar service has shortened travel time between Brussels and London to just an hour and 43 minutes, while the trip from London to Paris now takes barely more than two hours.

Taiwan, meanwhile, just inaugurated a high-speed rail line that can carry passengers from one end of the country to the other in just 90 minutes; and Japan continues to refine its 186-mph high-speed shinkansen trains, even as it works on an experimental maglev system that holds the world-record rail speed of 361 mph.

Not to be outdone, France set its own speed record for conventional wheeled trains just this year, when its TGV peaked at 357 mph on a test run. And Germany, Italy and Spain continue to rev up their high-speed rail networks, too. In fact, Spain is literally moving mountains to build a rail link between Barcelona and the French border: The route requires a tunnel through five miles of the Pyrenees chain.

High-speed rail is generally defined as public transport by train that exceeds 124 mph. Given that definition, the United States also has high-speed rail services, but just barely. Amtrak’s Acela Express runs along the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington D.C. at speeds of up to 150 mph. That’s better than sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 95, but it’s nothing compared to the trains now testing in France, which go more than twice as fast.

In thrall to the automobile and air travel, U.S. rapid train service never really took off. But now with highways packed, airports gridlocked and bridges crumbling, America has fallen way behind the rest of the developed world (and even some less developed parts) when it comes to creating a high-speed rail network.

Indeed, lightning-like rail service is popping up in countries where you might not have expected it. In South America, Argentina is forging ahead with plans to build the continent’s first high-speed network linking Buenos Aires and Córdoba. Based on French TGV technology, the “Cobra” bullet trains should be able to reach speeds of 199 mph just in time to carry passengers to Argentina’s 2010 bicentennial celebrations.

In Africa and the Middle East, too, projects are underway to use high-speed rail as part of overall modernization campaigns. Morocco and France have signed a deal to build a high-speed network that would connect the Moroccan cities of Tangiers and Marrakech, with links to Casablanca and Rabat; South Africa is talking about building a similarly speedy Johannesburg-Durban line; and India has begun identifying rail corridors in its massive rail network that are prime candidates for high-speed upgrades.

Image: Shinkansen Trains (Japan)
Istockphoto / Heiko Bennewitz
Japan pioneered high-speed rail travel in 1964 when the Tokaido Shinkansen began passenger service between Tokyo and Osaka. The first bullet trains took four hours to make the trip, but the latest generation of N700 shinkansen trains have a top speed of 186 mph and can make the journey in two hours and 25 minutes.
And then there’s Russia. Flush with cash from sky-high oil prices, Russia is planning a high-speed railway that will connect Moscow and St. Petersburg, with trains traveling up to 150 mph; as well as another high-velocity line linking Moscow with the Finnish capital of Helsinki. Russia is also in serious talks with Japanese companies about building bullet train lines that would whip eastward across Siberia, and south to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which won the bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympic games.

Buoyed by a constant march of technological progress, enthusiasm for high-speed trains seems to transcend geopolitics. Even arch-enemies like Israel and Iran can agree on the value of high-speed mass transit. Israel is planning a Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed link, while Iran took steps toward partnering with Germany on a maglev line between Tehran and Mashad.

However, U.S. policymakers seem to prefer the SUV to the TGV—though progress may indeed come through regional or statewide initiatives. Californians are scheduled to vote on a referendum in the November 2008 general election on whether to issue a $9 billion bond to build a 700-mile rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Should that project get the green light, Golden State travelers might one day be able to skip the traffic jams on the 405, and airport security lines at LAX, as they rocket by rail from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in just two and a half hours. Sounds like the perfect Hollywood ending.

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