High Speed Rail is the newest and shiniest thing in rail travel, despite being over fifty years old and sometimes having a decided look of Used Future. As Anglophone countries generally lack "true" High Speed Rail, English language media of all types are wont to get high speed rail wrong and often describe it as something which it is not, mixing up several things and often ending up being Just Train Wrong.
High Speed Rail also features prominently in advertising of most railways that have such trains with both their top speed and the space age design often emphasized as major selling points.
What is High Speed Rail?
High Speed Rail (often abbreviated HSR) is usually defined as trains on new purpose-built tracks going faster than 250 km∕h for significant lengths of track and/or trains on upgraded "legacy" rail alignments with a sustained speed above 200 km∕h (pretty much 125 mph). However, due to the inherent "sexiness" of the term, trains and routes that aren't HSR have been labeled "High Speed" despite not fulfilling the criteria. The closest things to HSR the Anglophone world currently (mid 2017) has are the Acela Express run by Amtrak along the Northeast Corridor at a top speed of roughly 150 mph which is only achieved on a very short stretch of track, the Eurostar which runs from London to Paris on a dedicated high speed line through the Southeast English countryside at speeds of roughly 300 km∕h and several trains north of London that are labeled "high speed" despite having a top speed of only 125 mph which they only achieve on short stretches of track. Other anglophone countries like Canada, Australia or New Zealand are even farther from any train making a reasonable definition of high speed rail.
For several reasons, High Speed Rail usually operates on electrified routes. some reasons As "third rail" (the system used on most Metro and S-Bahn systems) electrification limits speeds to something like 100 mph or 200 km∕h tops, overhead catenaries are almost universally used to electrify them. This has some visual downsides, as some people don't like the look of the wires and their support structure. However, High Speed Rail is much quieter than most "normal" trains - especially freight trains - due to the electric traction and because the tracks have to be maintained to very strict standards. There are pictures and videos on various internet sites of people balancing coins on their edge inside trains running at 300 km∕h. proof Those are not photoshopped.
What HSR is not
Maglev, or "magnetic levitation" is often described as an "even faster" form of HSR, however, it does not fall under most definitions of HSR, as it does not involve steel wheels on steel rails, but rather a vehicle levitating over single guideway, similar to a monorail if the vehicle "wraps around" the guideway. But unlike monorail, a maglev vehicle does not touch the guideway at speed, greatly decreasing friction.
As of 2016, the only high-speed maglev in revenue service (that is, selling tickets) is the 30.5km Shanghai Maglev Train line that connects the airport to a suburban subway station, with a top speed of 430km∕h; the trip takes 7 minutes. There are also a few low-speed (100km∕h) maglev lines. Opening in 2027, the 276km Chuo Shinkansen maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya will run under the Japanese Alps, and will be a part of Japan's Shinkansen (lit. new trunk line) wheel-on-rails HSR network. It will have an entirely new right of way, and, also, note that JR's maglev trains start and stop on wheels, transitioning to magnetic suspenson only after reaching significant speed, which is what allows them to interoperate with the normal rail.
Elon Musk's proposal of a "Hyperloop" is also not high speed rail, even though some design studies include rails. A hypothetical concept for very fast surface transport, the "Vactrain", is similar to the Hyperloop in some respects, as a train (usually Maglev) is proposed to go through a tube that has very low air pressure or a vacuum. However, unlike the initial Hyperloop proposal, propulsion would not be via air pressure but by the same means as a normal Maglev train.
Neither are HSR and high-speed trains synonymous. So-called "tilting body trains" are able to achieve 200 ᵏᵐ∕ₕ and faster speeds comparable to HSR on legacy tracks. This is due to automatized compensation of acceleration forces on curves on legacy tracks by tilting the body of the carriages on bogies. As a train (or other vehicle) rounds a curve at speed, objects inside the train experience inertia. This can cause packages to slide about or seated passengers to feel squashed by the outboard armrest due to its centripetal force, and standing passengers to lose their balance. Tilting trains are designed to counteract this discomfort. In a curve to the left, the train tilts to the left to compensate for the g-force push to the right, and vice versa. The train may be constructed such that inertial forces cause the tilting (passive tilt), or it may have a computer-controlled power mechanism (active tilt). The most famous tilting body train, which can achieve HSR speeds on legacy tracks, is Italian-made Pendolino, which is in service in several countries. Pendolinos are regularly driven on 220 km/h cruise speed, top speed being 250 km/h. The first major active tilting train was the British Advanced Passenger Train or APT. While it did set a new British rail speed record above 150 miles per hour in 1975, it was plagued by political problems and technological challenges as well as the biggest downside of tilting trains: some people get nausea riding them. Unfortunately, this happened during a high profile trial run with press (who may or may not have had a few drinks the previous evening) and ultimately the project was canceled, with the Italians taking over the patents.
Tilting trains in general have many Awesome, but Impractical features; on the one hand they enable higher speeds without costly, time-consuming and potentially controversial new construction of railway lines; on the other hand they are usually much more expensive than comparable non-tilting trains, which can make them more expensive in the long run. They also have certain acceptance problems as - especially on older versions that compensated all lateral forces - some people get sick on tilting trains. Furthermore walking through a tilting train can be a daunting task for young and fit people with no luggage, let alone the elderly, children, handicapped people or people with strollers. Furthermore, as Deutsche Bahn will tell you, the tilting mechanism is quite prone to breakdowns, giving them a - not entirely unjustified - reputation of being Fragile Speedster. Similar problems also showed up on the APT. Finnish Pendolinos have also behaved sub-optimally in cold weather (mind you, Finland is located between the 60th and 70th parallel North). That being said, Amtrak's Acela and the fastest trains in many other countries are tilting trains, and they are often sold to the public as a "compromise" between the huge financial commitment of true HSR (which can require complete new tracks in new right-of-way, which the train operator has to buy from land owners) and doing nothing.
Some modern rolling stock can achieve formidable speeds on legacy tracks: Finnish Sr 2 engine hauling Ed series double-decker car trains can achieve 200 km/h cruising speeds on regular traffic.
Countries that have High Speed Rail
Since entering regular service in Japan in the mid 1960s (at the time limited to 210 km∕h but soon to surpass the threshold for "true" HSR after today's definition), the Shinkansen has both expanded and found imitators around the world, including:
- The French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or "High-speed train") / LGV (Ligne à Grande Vitesse - high speed line; the name for the purpose built tracks those train run on) - first in Europe
- The German Inter-City Express (ICE) of Deutsche Bahn
- The Spanish "Alta Velocidad Española" (AVE * )
- The Turkish Yüksek Hızlı Tren (YHK) - first outside East Asia or Europe
- The Italian Frecciarossa (red arrow; top speed 360 km∕h) and its not exactly high speed cousins Frecciabianca and Frecciargento (top speed 250 km∕h)
- The "private" (French national railways SNCF is a major stockholder in all of those companies) Thalys Pronunciation (Benelux, France, Germany) Eurostar (France, London, Benelux) and Italo (Italy)
- The Korea Train Express (KTX) of South Korea, first launched in 2004 with the Seoul-Daejeon-Busan service
- The China Railway High-speed (CRH), which boasts the longest network of purpose-built high speed passenger-dedicated lines (PDLs) in the world, and is often brought up when arguing China Takes Over the World. China also upgraded many "legacy" tracks, some of them being more than a century and a half old and among the first railway lines ever built, to 120-250 km∕h operation, through six "speed up" campaigns.
- The Russian Sapsan (currently a single line between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, with a spur to Nizhny Novgorod) - the only high speed line using a non-standard gauge (1520 mm Russian broad gauge instead of 1435 mm standard gauge). It runs a localized version of Siemens Velaro trains (the same that used for ICE 3 in Germany) on an upgraded legacy track, for which it's often criticized, as it eats into the local trains schedules significantly.
- The second line runs between Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, also on existing tracks. Operated by Sapsan EMUs between 2009 and 2015, it later switched to the locomotive-driven Talgo 9 trains, dubbed Strizh in a Russian service. The through service from StPete, introduced in 2018, still uses Sapsans, though.
- The construction of a third, and first dedicated-track line between Moscow and Kazan is endlessly mulled around, with the project regularly being cancelled, Un-Cancelled, reduced, restored, which, combined with the constant attempts to reduce the fairly ridiculous capital cost, means that it'd probably remain a "project" for a time being.
- The Taiwanese Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) which uses Shinkansen technology after a combined bid of French and German companies using a hybrid of TGV and ICE technology lost due to - what some argue - political considerations. However, they used German train drivers to train their first generation of train drivers, because they have a reputation of being among the best in the world. A trip from the North to the South of the island takes a bit longer than a soccer match.
- The closest Canada has come to high speed rail is the United Aircraft Turbo Train, operated from 1968 to 1982 by Canadian National and later VIA Rail between Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. Based on studies undertaken by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the United States, the TurboTrain was a gas turbine trainset with elevated cab-lounge sections in either cab car. As of 2019, it still holds the speed record for a Canadian passenger train, once reaching 226 km∕h, though conventional track and abundant railway crossings meant it rarely operated above 150. Replacement LRC (Light, Rapid, and Comfortable) trains followed in the 80s, but still at conventional speeds. Not for lack of trying; Canada must hold the record for high speed rail studies, with somewhere around 20 conducted for the Quebec City-Windsor and Calgary-Edmonton corridors combined - plus a cross-border proposal between Montreal and Boston.
- In the United States...
- California voters mandated the state to construct a high-speed line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2029. Construction is underway, but only parts of the funding were approved as of late 2016. In 2019, the length of the route was cut back to a stretch between Bakersfield and Merced, with future expansion to be revisited later.
- In Florida, Brightline passenger trains began sharing tracks with high-speed freight starting in 2018, running between Orlando and Miami with a top-speed of 201 km∕h: the first private express rail service in the U.S. since 1983. Brightline was conceived by a private venture that already owns much of the right of way (and plans to make additional profit through real estate adjacent to stations - similar to what private Urban Rail operators did in the early 20th century and still do in some Asian countries) after Republican governors rejected federal HSR funds approved under President Obama. Brightline does not, however, make any definition of high speed rail.
- Meanwhile, the Acela Express continues to chug along with several improvements to aging tracks bridges and tunnels aimed to allow for higher top and average speeds and Amtrak has announced the purchase of French TGV derived trains that will be both lighter and faster than current Acelas to enter service in the early 2020s.
- The UK has HS1, linking London to the Channel Tunnel, with speeds of up to 300 km/h. HS2, connecting London to The North, is ... an ongoing project.
Wikivoyage has an article on the subject.