There is no fixed definition of high speed rail. It can be loosely defined as trains operating at speeds of at least 125 mph, with the fastest modern trains reaching speeds of about 220 mph. HSR is also defined by dedicated tracks and separated grade crossings, which dramatically reduce delays. And HSR is almost always part of a network of conventional and commuter trains, as well as transit systems. When all of these pieces are tightly coordinated and working in harmony, HSR creates a paradigm shift in travel options.
High-speed rail is a proven technology, with operating networks in over 20 countries. We can draw upon those experiences to build networks that meet our needs.
High-speed trains are a lot like regular trains, with steel wheels traveling over steel rails, but they use dedicated high-speed tracks and specialized train equipment to go really fast. Today's fastest trains regularly travel at 220 mph. (A French test train reached 357 mph, the current record.)
Because they use the same basic technology trains have used for more than 200 years, high-speed trains can take advantage of our existing railroad network. Just as a car journey starts on a regular road then moves to an interstate highway, high-speed trains can travel seamlessly over both new high-speed tracks and slower tracks shared with freight trains.
Most countries have used this flexibility to take a building block approach, adding new segments of high-speed line to the existing network. This lets one new investment in a single high-speed segment provide faster travel to many destinations, not just two end-points.
Each country has taken a slightly different approach to meet its local needs, but all networks share three key elements: A long-range plan, the right kind of tracks, and the right kind of trains.
High-speed rail is a big undertaking, so we need a big plan to coordinate multiple projects and ensure that we’re getting the biggest bang for our buck.
Many states have some kind of passenger rail plan, at least in theory. But it’s typically just a wish list of projects. Each project is focused on narrow market segment and has to justify large infrastructure investments on its own.
With a big picture plan, each segment is viewed in the context of the whole, rather than the projected ridership of just one segment in isolation. Viewing the system in holistic terms helps justify more frequent service on each segment. That increases ridership, which increases the value of the system overall.
It’s a virtuous cycle: A well-coordinated system feeds more riders into the individual segments; and when riders use the individual more, the more the broader system thrives.
As a result, there is a stronger business case—and more political support—for making transformative investments.
High-speed trains go fastest on dedicated high-speed tracks, but they can also travel over the same railroad tracks we’ve been laying in America for 200 years.
There are three basic types of tracks.
- High-speed lines are flat and straight, with gentle curves. They are totally dedicated to high-speed passenger trains.
- Urban trunk lines use existing rail corridors through cities to create a path for both high-speed trains and commuter trains.
- Shared-use lines are the most common in America today, where passenger trains share track space with heavy freight trains.
Modern trains that perform well on each type of track are crucial to a well-oiled high-speed network. The right trains make “unified service” possible, where high-speed express trains share conventional tracks with local passenger trains and freight trains for portions of their trips. Unified service makes the system as efficient and passenger-friendly as possible by reducing the need for people to change trains.
Modern high-speed trains also take curves better and accelerate faster on conventional tracks than older trains—saving riders time and frustration.