What Is High Speed Rail?

ICE Northbound near Lindburg

High-speed rail combines high-performance trains and high-speed lines to slash travel times in half.

High-Speed Rail is Fast, Frequent and Affordable

High-speed rail is a proven technology, with over 28,000 miles of high-speed line in over 20 countries. At its core, high-speed rail has two components:

  • High-speed trains. Today’s fastest trains cruise at 220 mph.
  • Dedicated high-speed lines. High-speed lines are like interstate highways with gentle curves and easy hills. All other railroads, roads, and walkways go over or under the tracks to create a sealed corridor.

As a result, high-speed rail is twice as fast as driving and more convenient than short flights.

But, It Is Much More Than That

High-speed rail should be a part of a larger network of trains, buses and other modes that all work together.

With easy and reliable travel connections, more people are drawn to the network. More demand makes the case for more frequent service, which further drives demand.

Better yet, high-speed trains often run on conventional tracks too, so they can serve cities and towns far beyond the high-speed line.

So high-speed rail is really the heart of a rich and complex system linking together hundreds of cities and towns with seamless and nearly effortless mobility.

The French TGV is another great example

German Network Track Types map

Germany’s high-speed trains (ICE – InterCity Express) operate in a complex web, using a mix of high-speed, upgraded, and conventional track in a single journey.

TGV Freight train

High-speed trains often use conventional, “shared-use” tracks for part of their trip.

How Does the Rest of the World Build High-Speed Rail?

Most countries use the Integrated Network Approach–gradually adding new segments of high-speed line to their existing network while upgrading connecting “shared-use” lines (which can be used by intercity, commuter, and freight trains) and local transit systems.

In some cases, high-speed trains run in “unified service” using both high-speed and shared-use tracks in a single trip. In other cases, passengers can buy a single ticket and switch easily between high-speed and conventional trains.

Learn more about the integrated network approach

Connecting Big Cities and Small

The first segment of European high-speed line was just 180 miles long, but it improved travel for the entire southeast region of France.

18 cities and towns got direct service by high-speed trains. Many others saw better service through connecting trains and buses.

We can take this approach in the US.

TGV Travel Times As 0f 1983 diagram
Ca State Rail Plan Final Map 2018
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We Need an Integrated Plan

We lack a vision and a master plan.

In North America, planning, building and running trains is split up among many agencies and companies. So, planning is focused on individual railroad segments rather than a comprehensive network. Everyone will benefit from faster trains, but without the big-picture network view, it is hard to coordinate all the stakeholders.

The 2018 California Rail Plan is the first to take a statewide big picture view. The Federal Railroad Administration is creating regional sketch plans that can be used to build a nationwide vision.

Together, we can push these plans forward.

Learn more about California’s comprehensive state rail plan

Portland light rail

There Are Many Ways You Can Have an Impact

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We Need a Demonstration Project

The Pennsylvania Turnpike, America’s first “high-speed” highway, opened in 1940, paving the way for the U.S. Interstate Highway System. We need an initial high-speed line to launch a network of American high-speed trains.

In 1956, Congress funded the Interstate Highway System. It was built over a forty-year period, with segments of new highway opening every year. Drivers used—and still use—a combination of Interstates, other highways, and local roads in a single journey. Interstate highways serve many purposes for many people. They’re used by locals, business travelers, and tourists for trips ranging from a few miles to thousands of miles.

High-speed rail will require a similar approach: A federal program implemented by state and local governments in partnership with private business. And we need to build the first stretch of high-speed line, joined with the conventional rail network, so that passengers – and elected leaders – can begin experiencing its benefits right away.

And there’s good news: There are several projects competing to be the first proof of concept, just as the Pennsylvania Turnpike was for the Interstate Highway System.

More Insights

sj river viaduct

The Central Valley could be the demonstration line

America’s first true high-speed line is under construction in California’s Central Valley.

ICE Northbound near Lindburg

Tell Congress That You Want Fast, Frequent and Dependable Trains.

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The Latest from HSRA

Our Latest Blog Posts

Check out the latest news, updates, and high speed rail insights from our blog!

What is needed to go fast?

What is needed to go fast?

The speed at which a train can travel is limited by the type of track it travels on. Bringing high-speed rail to North America will require building new high-speed lines that can accomodate frequent 200+ mph service. These new high-speed segments connect to and...

Making Shared-Use Work

Making Shared-Use Work

Change Relationship between States, Amtrak and Railroads Unlike Europe and Asia, most of the rail infrastructure in the U.S. is privately owned. Amtrak and other publicly-owned passenger railroads must negotiate with privately-owned railroads for use of their lines....

Needed Policy Changes

Needed Policy Changes

Building high-speed rail with the Phased Network Approach requires that we change some of the long-standing policy assumptions that have hampered passenger rail in the United States. Today, high-speed rail and conventional passenger rail are seen as two separate...

What makes high-speed rail successful?

What makes high-speed rail successful?

High-speed trains dramatically shorten travel time between stations. This effectively expands the areas that each station can serve.Speed is just the first ingredient Taking a train makes more sense if the travel time is competitive with flying or driving. What...

It’s a Beautiful Country

Let’s see it. Let’s clean it. Let’s build it. Let’s make high speed rail a reality.

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