Image Credit: ChrisO / Wikimedia

Fast Trains Around the Globe

A growing number of countries – 16 now, with more on the way – rely on high-speed rail service. Around the world, there are now 41,222 km (25,614 mi) on which trains run at speeds of at least about 250 km (155 mi) per hour. We wonder: Which nation has the largest high-speed rail network?

A. France
B. Japan
C. Spain
D. China
E. United States

A. France … is not correct.

France’s high-speed trains, called TGVs (or trains á grande vitesse), began service in 1976. Currently, the TGV network has a total length of over 2,696 kilometers (1,675 miles). As of 2015, it served some 130 million riders annually. That accounts for about 8% of the current total of 1.6 billion riders that use fast trains worldwide per year.

France’s high-speed railroad system is the fourth-largest in the world, according to the International Union of Railways.

Traveling around 300 kilometers (or 186 miles) per hour, travelers can go from Paris to Marseille on the Mediterranean coast – a distance of 790 kilometers (or 490 miles) – in just three hours.

France also holds the test speed record for conventional high-speed rail at 574.8 km (357 mi) per hour, set in 2007. In actual service, no high-speed rail around the world currently surpassed 350 km per hour.

High-speed train travel is time-competitive with domestic air travel even for long distances. It also helps lower emissions. Globally, 80% of passengers choose high-speed rail over air travel for journeys of less than 2.5 hours, if given the option.

Germany’s ICE high-speed train system is the fifth-longest in the world and has a total route length of around 1,658 kilometers (1,030 miles). The service was first established in 1988 and the most recent lines opened in December 2017.

Germany’s system, centrally located on the continent, is part of an EU-wide effort to create a high-speed rail network to reduce congestion on highways and in the skies – and promote European integration.

B. Japan … is not correct.

Until fairly recently, Japan still had the longest network in the world, but it now ranks second. The national high-speed network today has a total length of 3,041 km (1,890 miles). It serves 355 million passengers annually, accounting for more than 20% of the global total.

Japan inaugurated the era of the high-speed train in 1964 with its Shinkansen trains. The country’s main transportation axis is the original line running from Tokyo to Osaka. It covers a distance of 515 kilometers (320 miles) in just two hours and 30 minutes. The average maximum delay on that line is ten seconds for the entire distance.

There are now 17 high-speed lines in operation across the country. An additional 402 km (250 mi) are currently under construction.

Most high-speed rail lines run in East Asia or Europe. South Korea has 778 km (483 mi), while Taiwan has 354 km (220 mi).

C. Spain … is not correct.

Spain now has the longest high-speed rail network in operation in Europe and the third-longest in the world.

Spanish trains zip along a total of 2,938 km (1,826 mi) of high-speed rail lines. Spain entered the world of high-speed service in 1992 with its Madrid to Seville line. The most recent line opened in 2015.

Spain’s longest line runs 519 km (322 mi) between Madrid and Lleida in Catalonia and opened in 2003.

D. China … is correct.

A decade ago, China was still building its first extensive high-speed train line. Today, no country has more miles of high-speed rail in service. At 26,869 km (16,696 mi), China accounts for 65% of the 41,222 km (25,614 mi) of high-speed rail in operation worldwide. In 2015, 800 million riders – or half of the global total – used high-speed rail in China.

A further 10,738 km (6,672 mi) is currently under construction in China. That expansion alone is slightly more than the total combined length of the next four longest high-speed systems in the world (Japan, Spain, France and Germany).

China’s first high-speed rail line began service in 2011. It links Beijing and Shanghai and is 1,318 km (819 mi) long. This connection reduced the train travel time between these two cities from ten hours to just five hours. Its top speed is 350 km per hour.

E. United States … is not correct.

In the United States, high-speed trains are still in an embryonic stage. Currently, the country has just 362 km (225 mi) of truly high-speed rail segments, all in the Washington, D.C.-Boston corridor, in the country’s Northeast.

However, these trains only reach a speed of 241 kilometers (150 miles) – far slower than train lines in Japan, France, Germany and elsewhere – and only on short segments of the rail network.

The comparison to China – a similarly vast country as the United States – is instructive. The distance between Beijing and Shanghai is about 77 km (47 mi) less than that between New York City and Chicago. However, while that distance takes five hours on fast trains in China, the Amtrak train service takes 19 hours, with a top speed below 128 km (80 mi) per hour.

In 2015, construction began on a high-speed rail project in California. It is not expected to open until 2025 or 2029 – a much slower pace of construction-to-operation than the typical line in China.

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