B.4 – High Speed Rail Systems

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

High speed rail refers to passenger rail systems running at operational speed between 200 and 300 km/h, and above in some cases.

1. High Speed Rail Networks

Although trains could reach 200 km/hr by the beginning of the 20th century, operational speeds rarely surpassed 130 km/hr. The high-speed rail (HSR) era originated in Japan with the Tokaido line, bridging Tokyo and Osaka, which entered into service in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics. Japan presented several suitable conditions for setting up an HSR system, particularly a high population density, and closely interconnected large cities. It simply became a matter of overlapping the HSR network over this spatial structure. HSR is perceived as an efficient alternative to highway and airport congestion. Evidence underlines that rail travel time is cut in about half when a high-speed service is established between two city pairs.

The setting of high-speed rail systems has accelerated worldwide since the 1980s with substantial growth in traffic. The first European high-speed line was inaugurated in 1981 between Paris and Lyon with a speed of 260 km/hr. It was followed by Germany and Italy (1988), Spain (1992), Belgium (1997), the UK (2003), and the Netherlands (2009). It is, however, China that has seen the most spectacular developments. From 2008 when the first high-speed line between Beijing and Tianjin was inaugurated, several high-speed rail corridors have been rapidly set, reaching 19,000 km in 2016 and 37,900 km in 2020, making it the longest in the world. Several countries, including the United States, are also planning for high-speed rail corridors. Still, these projects tend to take decades to implement due to funding issues, the limited importance of existing passenger rail services, and the dominance of air and road transportation. Dedicated high-speed postal trains are used in Europe (e.g. France and Sweden) on a daily basis. Still, the relative decline of postal use leaves such endeavors with questionable growth potential.

High speed rail currently functions under two discrete technologies:

  • Improvement of conventional rail. The first type uses existing conventional rail systems and its great velocity is primarily due to considerable improvements in locomotive performance and train design. They may not be considered pure high-speed trains per se. England (London – Edinburgh), Sweden (Stockholm – Gothenburg), Italy (Rome – Florence and Rome – Milan), and the United States (Boston – Washington) are examples of this type of technology. Trains can reach peak speeds of approximately 200 km/h in most cases and up to 250 km/h in Italy. The principal drawback of using this system, however, is that it must share existing lines with regular passengers and freight services, which limits the slots available to HSR.
  • Exclusive high-speed networks. In contrast, the second category of high-speed trains runs on its own exclusive and independent tracks. In Japan, trains can attain speeds of 240 km/h, but ongoing projects to raise peak speeds to 300 km/h aim at maintaining the competitiveness of rail passenger transport versus air. In France, the TGV Sud-Est (Trains a Grande Vitesse) reaches speeds of 270 km/h, while the TGV Atlantique can cruise at speeds of 300 km/h. One of the key advantages of such a system is since passenger trains have their exclusive tracks, the efficiency of rail freight transport increases as it inherits the almost exclusive use of the conventional rail system.

The first high-speed rail networks were built to service national systems, mostly linearly along main corridors. In the case of Europe, this development has reached a phase where integration between different national high-speed systems is taking place. This notably involves Eurostar (Paris – Lille – London) and Thalys (Paris – Brussels – Antwerp – Rotterdam – Amsterdam). The setting of high-speed rail networks consequently must take into consideration the following constraints:

  • Commercial potential. High-speed rail is particularly suitable in a system of large metropolitan areas in close proximity where it can offer a travel time advantage, a key factor of its competitiveness. Thriving short-haul air services indicate an existing market of passengers valuing fast services.
  • Distance between stations. A distance of 50 km is often considered a minimum, leaving enough for trains to accelerate and reach a cruising speed that makes the advantages of high-speed rail relevant. Servicing too many stations undermines the rationale of high-speed systems, which is to serve large urban agglomerations in a fast and continuous manner.
  • Right of way separation from other rail systems. This is mainly the case in and out of metropolitan areas where high-speed trains are forced to use the standard rail network so that they may connect to central rail stations.
  • Availability of land, both for terminals and high-speed lines. This problem can be mitigated by using existing central rail stations. The development of new HSR stations has often required the use of suburban greenfield sites. China has addressed this challenge by constructing large segments of its HSR system using bridges. While a km of rail takes about 28 hectares of land per km, using bridges reduces this footprint to around 11 hectares. Further, the bridge sections can be mass-produced and quickly assembled, reducing construction costs and time.

2. Benefits and Challenges

HSR provides a number of economic, social and environmental benefits for the corridors they service. The most salient are:

  • Capacity and reliability. HSR corridors have the capacity to move a large number of passengers in a safe and reliable manner. Depending on the design, a high-speed rail corridor can carry up to 400,000 passengers per day. They can mitigate congested road and air infrastructure, particularly for short to medium distance trips. They are also much less impacted by adverse weather conditions (e.g., storms) than road and air transport and can thus continue to offer services in conditions that would cripple road and, particularly, air operations.
  • Energy and environment. HSR systems consume less energy per passenger-km than road and air transport. They are perceived to provide more sustainable mobility with electric power and denser land use structures associated with rail-oriented developments.

High-speed rail systems can substantially impact other transport modes, even freight transport systems. One of the most apparent impacts is on air transportation services between cities along the high-speed rail corridor, particularly the most distant ones. High-speed rail is able to compete successfully with short to medium-distance air transport services as it conveys the advantage of servicing downtown areas and has much lower terminal time, mainly because of fewer security constraints. High-speed rail has a service window, usually between 150 and 800 km, as above 1,000 km air transportation is considered to be more effective. For city pairs closer than 500 km, introducing high-speed rail services will most likely remove commercial air services as they cease to be competitive from a time and cost perspective. Flights on routes that are over 1,500 km are usually little impacted. This can have a very important impact on air transportation since the world’s most active air routes are all short hauls of less than 1,000 km. Still, low-cost air services are able to compete with HSR in specific segments.

Another emerging trend concerns a complementarity between HSR and air transportation, which involves cooperation between a national air and rail carrier. For instance, Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn, and Air France and SNCF, offer single fares and tickets for selected routes where a high-speed rail segment is offered instead of a flight. There is thus a balance between competition and complementarity for HSR and air transportation services, particularly when there is congestion in the air transport system. In this situation, the complementarity may help release airport gate slots that can support more revenue-generating (longer distance) flights or reduce congestion. Further, introducing HSR usually increases the demand for travel between city pairs, a trend that can benefit air transportation.

Rail stations with high-speed rail services are also increasingly becoming transport hubs with the associated demands on urban transport systems, particularly public transit. Regarding high-speed rail stations, two dynamics have emerged:

  • The reconversion and usage of central railway stations. Such facilities benefit from high accessibility levels due to their central locations and can thus grant a significant customer base for HSR services. This is particularly the case for the European system that is using existing tracks to access the central train station (e.g. Paris, Frankfurt, Munich), which avoided expensive development projects such as new stations or the building of tunnels.
  • The setting of new facilities in suburbia. In this case, the HSR station represents an opportunity to create a new node of activity (growth pole) within a metropolitan area.

For freight transportation, there are several potential impacts, mostly indirect. The most straightforward is that since high-speed rail uses its own right of way, the separation between passenger and freight systems promotes the efficiency and reliability of both networks. The main reason is that passengers and freight have different operational characteristics, namely in terms of speed and frequency of service. For each passenger car that is removed from regular rail lines, an additional three freight rail cars can be accommodated by the new slot. The setting of high-speed networks may also incite additional investments in rail freight infrastructure, particularly in metropolitan areas, better signaling technologies, and cost-sharing initiatives. Although there have been discussions about the potential of using high-speed rail to move freight, these have not yet led to limited implementations. There are plans to have a high-speed rail cargo network in Europe, which would link major air cargo hubs such as Paris, Liege, Amsterdam, London, and Frankfurt. The goal is to provide an alternative to short-haul air cargo routes as well as the possibility to move cargo between the hubs and improve their long-distance air cargo connectivity. In China, express package delivery services using the existing high speed rail equipment have been implemented and cover most of the network. It is particularly used to carry cold chain goods such as pharmaceuticals and food. However, such services remain challenging to implement because of the limited capacity to carry cargo and the requirement to quickly load and unload parcels during a stop at a station.

Yet, HSR does not have the far-reaching impacts on passenger mobility that its proponents suggest, at least in the medium term. Although HSR in Europe is considered to be successful, its implementation requires massive subsidies, and its profitability remains difficult to achieve. For Spain, the world’s second most extensive system in terms of length, the process has particularly been a political one with the purpose of linking regional capitals with the national capital (Madrid). For developing countries, low fares are the dominant factor in mode selection, implying that HSR is not affordable for the great majority of the population. The location of stations remains a salient issue as suburban locations are advantageous from the availability of land perspective. However, suburban locations tend to be not well connected to the local transport system and are remote from central areas, which is commonly the destination for most passenger traffic. The impacts of new HSR stations as poles for urban growth and development remain so far elusive.

3. New Technologies

In addition to present technologies, an entirely new technological paradigm has been under development since the late 1970s, initially in Japan and Germany. The new technology is known as Maglev (Magnetic Levitation); it utilizes magnetic forces to uplift trains, guide them laterally, and propel them, relying upon highly efficient electromagnetic systems. The first commercial maglev rail system was inaugurated in Shanghai in 2003. However, Maglev systems have experienced some constraints on widespread commercialization, such as difficulties with integration in established rail corridors and perceptions of high construction costs.

A further expansion of the technology took shape in 2012 by introducing the hyperloop concept, which involves a maglev vehicle (e.g. a pod) circulating in a vacuum tube. Less air friction enables much higher operational speeds in the range of 1,000 km/hr. Although such systems have not yet been constructed, some short-distance corridors could be developed by 2025-30.

Related Topics


  • Albalate, D. and G. Bel (2012) The Economics and Politics of High Speed Rail: Lessons from Experiences Abroad, Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
  • Feigenbaum, B. (2013) High-Speed Rail in Europe and Asia: Lessons for the United States, Reason Foundation, Policy Study 418.
  • Givoni, M. (2006) “Development and Impact of the Modern High-speed Train: A Review”, Transport Reviews, Vol. 26, No. 5, pp. 593–611.
  • LEK Consulting (2019) New Routes to Profitability in High-Speed Rail.
  • Ryder, A. (2012) “High Speed Rail”, Journal of Transport Geography, Vol. 22, pp. 303-305.
  • Smith, R.A. (2003) “The Japanese Shinkansen”, Journal of Transport History, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 222-237.