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Example of High-speed rail.

High-speed rail is railroad service featuring trains that travel much faster than most other trains. Very fast!

What it isEdit

What counts as "very fast" is a matter of definition, but a common one is speeds at least 200 km/h (124 mph). However, high-speed trains usually run at 250 - 300 km/h (155 - 186 mph).

The trains themselves are usually streamlined, with an airplane-like or missile-like appearance, thus "bullet trains". However, they use wheels on steel rails, like other trains. This makes them capable of using older rail lines, which they often do, though they go fastest on lines specially built for high-speed duty.

High-speed lines are an important part of HSR systems. They must be very straight to keep the trains on the tracks and to keep the passengers from being shaken back and forth. This means radii of curvature typically greater than 4 km. However, high-speed trains can easily tolerate grades higher than most other trains can, grades higher than 1%. The building of high-speed lines can be expensive, and that expense has been a limiting factor in the growth of HSR.

But on the operational side, high-speed trains can easily earn more than enough to cover their costs, unlike relatively slow trains, which often depend on subsidies. In fact, they can do so while being competitive with airlines. In fact, the opening of several HSR lines has led to drops in parallel airline service, often by 50% or more.


The modern era of high-speed trains started in Japan in 1964 with the opening of its Shinkansen ("New Trunk Line") in 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka. Europeans gradually caught up with it in the 1970's, and in 1981, France opened part of the Paris-Lyon LGV (Ligne à Grande Vitesse, "High-Speed Line"), for its TGV's (Train à Grande Vitesse, "High-Speed Train").

Since then, several other nations have joined Japan and France in building high-speed lines. Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK, Belgium, Holland, Turkey, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, China, etc.

China has gotten into HSR in a big way, and since 2007, it has built over 9000 km of HSR line. Most recently, it has completed a line from Beijing to just outside of Hong Kong, about 2200 km (1400 mi) long. This new line reduces travel time along its length from around 21 hours to 8 hours, and it is about as long as New York City - Miami, NYC - Omaha, Seattle - San Diego, Amsterdam - Sevilla, and London - Naples.

However, US efforts have been very paltry. The US line with the fastest trains is Boston-Washington in the Northeast Corridor, and that's barely at the 200-km/h threshold. Most US "high-speed" efforts might better be called "higher-speed" rail, mostly upgrading existing lines and getting close to 200 km/h. There are, however, two efforts to construct Eurasian-style HSR lines:

  • California High-Speed Rail: Los Angeles - San Francisco, with branches to Sacramento and San Diego (now under construction)
  • XpressWest: Victorville near LA - Las Vegas (still in planning)

California High-Speed RailEdit

California Governor Jerry Brown has long been an advocate of it, all the way back to his first two terms as governor in 1975 - 1983. But it was not until 1993 that the Intercity High-Speed Rail Commission was created, and in 1996 that the California High-Speed Rail Authority was established. Even then, it was in 2008 that voters agreed on issuing $9 billion in bonds for construction in Proposition 1A.

A few years later, the project got an unexpected financial boost when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Ohio Governor John Kasich, and Florida Governor Rick Scott all canceled passenger-rail projects in their states. Much of their rejected money went to it.

The CHSRA has decided to build the project in segments. The first part to be built is the Initial Construction Segment, Merced - Fresno - Bakersfield, and construction of it started early in 2015. The next stage of construction is the Initial Operating Segment, built by adding to the ICS either a Merced - Gilroy - San Jose segment (IOS North) or a Bakersfield - Palmdale - Burbank segment (IOS South). The CHSRA first proposed IOS South, but it will require a lot of tunneling in the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains, so the CHSRA has most recently proposed IOS North instead.

That may get going some time around 2025, and it would be 2 hours by train between San Jose and Bakersfield and 2 hours by bus between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.

The next stage will be building the other ICS added segment, in this case, Bakersfield - Palmdale - Burbank. To complete Phase I, it will be necessary to improve the existing San Jose - San Francisco tracks and the existing Burbank - Los Angeles - Anaheim tracks. Phase II will have two segments: Merced - Stockton - Sacramento and Los Angeles - Riverside - San Diego.


High-speed trains have gotten caught in the US culture wars, with right-wingers like Michele Bachmann, George Will, and Newt Gingrich slamming passenger-rail systems as part of liberals' efforts to drag people out of their cars. Liberals hate the freedom that cars offer, some of them claim.

US high-speed and higher-speed rail efforts got a big boost when Barack Obama supported them early in his Presidency. He proposed putting several billion dollars per year into HSR efforts, and Congress approved some of that money. On a more personal note, his Vice President, Joe Biden, is a known Amtrak rider in the Northeast Corridor.

But then the Republicans struck back in 2010, getting lots of seats in Congress and state legislatures and winning lots of governors' races. It seemed like a replay of 1994, the Republicans winning big after a Democratic President tried to push health-care reform. Three Republican governors, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, and Rick Scott of Florida canceled plans to build new passenger-rail lines, even though they were close to construction. Scott Walker canceled a plan to restart Milwaukee - Madison rail service on existing lines at 110 mph, John Kasich canceled a plan to restart Cleveland - Columbus - Cincinnati rail service on existing lines at 79 mph, and Rick Scott canceled a plan to built a new Tampa - Orlando line for 150-mph service. California got much of the money that they rejected, and I (lpetrich) propose that three of the California system's stations ought to be named the Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Rick Scott Memorial Stations, in honor of their "remarkable generosity".

However, in Europe, some of the opponents of new HSR lines are on the political left. In Italy, No TAV ("No HSR") has long opposed an effort to built a Lyon - Turin HSR line, and it is clearly on the left.

External linksEdit

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