New Wuhan-Guangzhou Rail Route Shatters Average Speed Records

» A comparison of long-distance high-speed rail routes puts China’s accomplishment in perspective.

What makes high-speed rail so remarkable is its ability to move people so quickly from one place to another, and that, of course, requires high average running speeds. In the U.S., even the fastest train — the Acela Express that travels between Boston and Washington, capable of 150 mph — averages only about 80 mph on its 450-mile journey. As has been discussed previously on these pages, while the ability to reach higher and higher speeds is an important element of rail system success, the ability to maintain those speeds is what matters most.

Even on the fastest rail lines, average speeds have come nowhere close to meeting top speeds on trips between major cities; this is typically a result of required slow-downs in urban areas and at stops and tight curves through difficult terrain. Many “high-speed” lines also contain many sections that have not yet been upgraded to the highest standards, forcing trains to run more slowly along them.

Today, the fastest scheduled journey between two cities on any high-speed route in the world is on the TGV Est in France between Champagne and Lorraine stations, a distance of 168 km completed at an average speed of 279.3 km/h. But that connection is just a small section of the overall line; much of the rest of the route features far lower average travel times. Many “high-speed” rail journeys throughout the world offer similarly quick segments with the rest of the line operating far more slowely.

Indeed, the fact that high-speed rail rarely means high-speed throughout the route makes the opening of China’s new line between Wuhan and Guangzhou, which has been under construction since 2005, particularly notable. The corridor is almost 1,000 km long and trains are able to travel at their maximum speeds basically from beginning to end.

According to Chinese officials, trains will be able to traverse the 968 km route in just four three hours, averaging 328 242 km/h,* about three-fourths of the trains’ technologically imposed maximum operating speed of 395 km/h. This is compared to a 10h30 travel time on the older track.

At similar speeds, commuters could get between Boston and Washington in about three and a half hours or between New York and Chicago in less than five. Service of that speed would provoke an enormous mode shift towards rail transport — exactly what China is likely to experience now.

Comparing Long-Distance High-Speed Rail Routes
Line Distance Travel Time Avg Speed
China: Wuhan-Guangzhou 968 km 2h57 328 km/h
Spain: Cordoba-Barcelona 966 km 4h42 206 km/h
France: Lille-Marseille 959 km 4h40 206 km/h
Italy: Turin-Naples 900 km 5h45 157 km/h
USA: Boston-Newport News 1034 km 12h35 82 km/h

As evidenced by the above table, China’s new line provides quantitative speed advanages over some of the fastest trips of similar distances in Spain, France, and Italy — not to mention the U.S.

Tests on the corridor in early December 9th pushed the Siemens Velaro trainsets used by the state railway to up to 395 km/h. That makes them the fastest production trains in the world, though a modified TGV reached 572 km/h in 2007.

The Chinese government is capable of such audacious average speeds because, more than any other country on the world, it is engaging actively to invest in its infrastructure needs for the next century — its commitment earlier this year to $200 billion for high-speed rail outmatches any previous investment in rail in the history of the world.

Unlike Western countries, which tend to prioritize the preservation of existing city centers and which are willing to alter routes dramatically to respond to citizen concerns, Chinese officials can ram through huge, invasive infrastructure projects virtually anywhere. In general, this means Chinese trains are able to accelerate more quickly and maintain their top running speeds even in heavily populated areas.

There is good evidence that investors in new rail lines have a strong incentive to push trains to the fastest-possible average speeds despite the fact that doing so provokes considerable local opposition. After years of growth, South Korea’s high-speed KTX line is suffering from declining ridership after the opening of a direct metro link to the Seoul Airport, despite the train system’s relatively low fares. Competing economy air routes offer faster service that’s just as convenient; any new rail corridor in the U.S. will immediately face similar competitors, so there is a strong motivation to keep travel time differences to a minimum.

KTX hopes to regain many of those travelers with a new fast link opening to Busan next year that will increase average speeds and decrease travel times to just 2h10 between the cities.

China’s advances suggest that high-speed rail has yet to meet its technological limitations and that countries like the United States, only now spending on rail, would benefit from finding ways to speed new train lines even more quickly.

* Note: Some reports have claimed that the Wuhan-Guangzhou route is 1,070 km long and that it will be served by trains completing the route in just three hours. Wrong. The first number is the mileage of the line this new, shorter route replaces; the second is the travel time of a test train that ran the route non-stop earlier in the month (at an astonishing average speed of 323 km/h) — regular trains will take a still-admirable four hours to make the journey.

Update, 27 December: I’m sorry I reported this story incorrectly earlier. These trains will indeed be able to complete this journey in just three hours, solidifying the route’s fastest-in-the-world status. The claim of some Chinese officials that this line is 1,070 km long, however, seems to be inaccurate, as reported previously. According to ARCADIS, an engineering group working on the project, the line is 935 km long, with a 350 km/h design speed; Structurae notes that the line distance is 968 km, the number I use here. Conclusion: trains are actually averaging 328 km/h or less on the line, not the 350 km/h China is advertising. This makes sense considering that Siemens’ Velaro trainsets being used on the line are only designed for 350 km/h maximum commercial operation. There is a bit of misinformation being spread here.

31 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I wonder why in your analysis of the Northeast Corridor, you examine the route south of Washington?

    While some NE Regional trains do continue south to Newport News, the route is not electrified, not exclusive to passenger service, and not served by frequent trains. Acela Express trains do not ply the route and the regionals that do are delayed by a scheduled engine change at Washington Terminal.

    Shortening the examination to just the portion between Boston South and Washington Union would also bring the corridor more in line with the other four corridors examined, which are shorter.

  • Matt,

    Thanks for the point. If you consider the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, it is 734 km long (much shorter than the other corridors, which is why I didn’t use it) and an Acela can make the journey between its endpoints in 6h35. That gives it an average speed of less than 115 km/h.

  • I think “longest US trip remotely comparable” trumps “about as long,by adding a segment that contradicts the table heading”.

    At the least asterisk it, and note Acela Boston/DC time and average speed.

  • Ocean Railroader

    We need to get rid of the Washingtion DC Catenary train change in Washingtion the lines south of Washingtion can be up graded easer then the lines between Washingtion DC and New York. We coould possibly beat China’s high speed rail speeds in the Mid west in that most of the rail lines are as stright as a arrow.

    China is able to do thngs a lot faster and cheaper in that they don’t have to worry about people sueing them for everything. Such as when they want to put in a wind farm the US everyone sues in that it looks ugly and tie up the courts. That is another reason why Renewble power is growing so fast in China Also they have a vast GDP surplus and a very large population that has not really had the chance for good travel modes and so now they are buying the best trains and ttracks for a new system that has never been there before.

  • greg

    The limit to the average speed of Wuhan-Guangzhou line is not so much the track or the train-set. It is really the operating mode.

    It is expected that Wuhan-Guangzhou high-speed rail will operate in two different modes: an express mode with stops only at Changsha and Chenzhou; a regular mode at all stops. The express trains will take about just over 3 hours, while the regular ones mostly likely over 4 hours.

    I expect most of China’s HSR’s, once open, operate in such express/regular mode, to strike a balance between speed and coverage. The provincial capitals and major coastal cities are served by express trains while the other smaller cities by regular ones.

    When the entire HSR network is completed, it will be quite a scheduling challenge for the Chinese HSR operators. The complexity is likely to be order of magnitude more difficult than in Japan or Europe.

  • Max Wyss

    I don’t want to make the Chinese numbers bad, by no means, but when comparing the numbers in the table, we should know how many intermediate stops there are in each case.

    As the SNCF has a completely chaotic timetable, my experience is only partly conclusive, but I was recently on a Marseille – Lille train, which stopped in Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Lyon Part Dieu, Chessy (Eurodisney), and Charles deGaulle airport. Such stops seriously reduce the average speed, and the train did definitely not make more than 160 km/h between Marseille and Aix (well, the two stations are about as far apart as Penn Station and Newark). And this route also includes a long stretch with maximum speed of 270 km/h (Lyon – Paris), which is quite hilly, and the speed drops down to 220 km/h at the top of the hills. The rest of the line is operated at 300 km/h.

    About that test run. Such runs are publicity stints, of course. However, at least in Europe), any rail vehicle must prove its stability at 10% above the allowed maximum speed. Therefore, any vehicle to be allowed for 350 km/h MUST prove that it runs stable at 385 km/h at least.

    Nevertheless, the Chinese developments show what can be made, and they do it big style, with an total of 400 Velaro trains on order or delivered…

  • I’ve enjoyed reading your post and I’m sure many others will too. FYI, early in the twentieth century a number of grading scales were proposed by which teachers rated student writing. Afterwards, many teachers only deemed it necessary to assign a letter grade to those papers, a grade scrawled out in ill-omened red ink. The grade did not explain what the teacher thought of the content, the engineers, the style, or perhaps the organization of the paper. The coed was left to grasp the reasoning behind the grade on his / her very own, expecting to discover a solution by the point the next paper was due. However , by the 1950’s the fashion in which teachers approached papers began to change. Teachers noticed that letter grades alone weren’t helping students in sharpening their writing skills. Feedback will do you good and in the long run benefit the readers of your blog.

  • Yonah, you should add the numbers for the Japanese Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen trains. Many Nozomi trains run through, with a change of drivers at Shin-Osaka. The fastest train, the 6 am from Tokyo to Hakata, does the 1,069-km trip in 4:55, at an average speed of 217 km/h; this run has 11 stops. Other trains running N700 equipment do the trip in 5:03, at an average speed of 212 km/h.

  • George

    Those TGV stops are in the middle of nowhere. I looked at the TGV Lorraine stop on Google Maps and it is surrounded by farmland. Metz is 10 miles away. And the TGV Champagne-Ardenne stop is several miles outside Reims next to a farm and an industrial district.

    Say what you will about Acela’s speed, but at least it takes you to the downtowns of all the cities it serves – Boston, Providence, New Haven, Stamford, NY, Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore and DC.

    Yonah, what is the point of a fast train if it takes you from the middle of Paris to the middle of nowhere? Once you add the time it takes to get from the rural station to an actual town, much of the time savings of Acela over TGV are lost.

  • Max Wyss

    George, keep in mind that these two stops are secondary stops for the TGV network, and there are not many trains actually stopping there. The “important” station is Strasbourg, which has a downtown station.

    The Lorraine station is pretty much in the middle between Metz/Thionville and Nancy, the two important centers, which can not be connected both to the high speed line. The idea is to have a stop without obstructing the main traffic.

    But the most important point to keep in mind when comparing the TGV Est Europe line with the NorthEast Corridor is that the latter is a historically grown (kind of) route, whereas the TGV line is newly created. A newly created TGV line between Boston and Washington would most likely bypass several of the cities mentioned.

  • George, all the cities you’ve cited on the NEC sit at the center of a large metro area or metro division, and would get downtown stops with a TGV system. The smallest, New Haven, is larger than Strasbourg. The larger cities in France – Nantes, Nice, Marseille, Lille, Lyon, Toulouse – all have downtown stops. The beet field stations are in tiny metro areas, none of which has even 500,000 people.

  • Scoop

    I’m curious about your assertions that high speeds provoke opposition here in the U.S. Are you saying that even after rail lines are established, people who live near them want to keep the trains running slowly? Is this on grounds of safety? I had thought high speed train lines were set off well enough (i.e. no grade crossings) to make safety a non-issue. But if not safety, what could be the objection? Wind noise?

  • Michael

    Noise has been a major limiting factor in speed increases on the Japanese shinkansen network. JR East developed trainsets to run at 360 km/h on services in the north of the country, but has been forced to limit its planned speed increase to 320 km/h due to noise restrictions (which I believe are something like 70dB in residential areas). Particularly problematic is noise produced entering and leaving tunnels; this has been the focus of a lot of R&D recently.

    Alon, thanks for bringing up the Japanese case. Average speeds across the network tend to be good–the fastest service on the Tohoku Shinkansen, for instance, travels 631.9 km at a top speed of 275 km/h and an average speed of 215 km/h; with the introduction of new rolling stock in March 2011, top speeds will increase incrementally, reaching 320 km/h a couple years later, pushing up the average speeds of the fastest express services. Do comparable distances elsewhere (in Europe, China) tend to have higher average speeds?

  • Michael

    Oh, scratch my numbers for average speeds. Tohoku Shinkansen works out closer to 202 km/h, as it’s total distance is something like 593.1 km.

    Nevertheless, JR East eventually plans to run services to Shin-Aomori in about 3 h 5 from Tokyo, covering a distance of 674.9 km at an average speed of 219 km/h (top speed 320 km/h). This would be from spring 2013 once new trainsets are introduced.

  • Timothy

    To determine true average speed you need to look at actual delivered performance, not only scheduled time. Factoring in that, the Shinkansen is amazing. The average delay per train is a mere few seconds, including all causes (no excuses). You also have to consider frequency, i.e. include the average delay a passenger would actually experience waiting for the next train. JR Central has trains running every 5 minutes at peak between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, so there’s virtually no waiting: you just show up and go. And it’s almost entirely downtown to downtown service, so actual delivered door to door service is impressive.

    The Shinkansen is the fastest intercity train in the world in terms of actual passenger experience, which is what counts. The new line in China might or might not beat it, but nothing else does right now.

  • Nick

    And it’s almost entirely downtown to downtown service

    Not exactly. A lot of stations are shin (‘new’) stations are located a couple kilometres away from the downtown. The areas surrounding a lot of them (e.g. Shin-osaka) look like typical medium-high residential areas.

  • greg

    An update on the Wuhan – Guangzhou route.

    The latest timetable has been published. Train tickets started to sell today. Between Wuhan and Guangzhou, first class costs 780 yuan; second class 490 yuan. The route will be operational starting on Dec 26.

    There will be 23 scheduled train services from Wuhan to Guangzhou everyday (same number from Guangzhou to Wuhan, I’ll use Wuhan- Guangzhou as example below).

    These trains will stop at 12 intermediate stops, but each individual service will not stop at more than 6 intermediate stations. There are two non-stop services from Wuhan to Guangzhou. This is quite different from what I speculated earlier, see my previous comments.

    The two non-stop services are:
    Train No Departure Arrival
    G1001 9:00 11:57
    G1003 16:00 18:57

    The fastest service thus takes 2 hours 57 minutes; other services take between 3 hours 44 minutes to 3 hours 49 minutes. Based on the schedule, the average travel speed will be between 253 km/h and 328 km/h. This is pretty impressive!

  • Max Wyss

    Interesting numbers, and that allows us to estimate the time “lost” by a stop. A stop extends the overall travel time by an average of 8 minutes. Actual stop time at the station would be in the 2 minute range, the rest is used to brake and accellerate again (although I have some doubts that the passing trains will pass at full speed (just a bit of speculation).

  • Scoop

    This thread is probably close to dead, but if anyone is still around, I’m very interested in (and quite surprised by) the idea that high-speed trains with electric engines (and thus no engine noise) produce huge amounts of noise just by cutting through the air.

    Does anyone know of a place that has data on how close one must be to the tracks to hear the wind noise generated by trains moving at various speeds and how close one must be for that noise to be at a level that humans find annoying?

  • Max Wyss

    Actually, there are two main noise sources:

    • noise created by the rolling of the wheels on the rails

    • aerodynamic noise

    I can not provide a link but I am sure that the UIC has noise standards in their library.

    About aerodynamic noise: have you ever heard a sailplane? They are pretty loud.

    Immission standards are, depending on the kind of location, between 75 dB (industrial, daytime) and 45 dB (hospitals, nighttime). It has been said that in Japan, the restrictions are rather strict (well, the high speed lines go through rather densely populated areas), and that’s the reason why the JR companies put a lot of effort in aerodynamic improvements.

    A few features are smooth surfaces (including skirts along the undercarriage and the trucks, as well as connectors between the carbodies (hmmm… another possible argument for articulation…)), or long snouts (which are also recommended for aerodynamic reasons)). Actually, the “duck beak” type we see on the Japanese class 700N and the newest Talgo locomotives in Spain are said to be quite good.

  • greg

    Based on the schedule, the stop time at each station is 2 minutes. The “lost” time at each stop is 8 minutes therefore.

    One interesting observation of the timetable. The train departing right before the non-stop train (30 minutes earlier) will stop at Changsha for 16 minutes, which obviously allows the non-stop train pass through Changsha.

  • Max, Greg: you can look at Shinkansen schedules as well – the greenfield stops there have a time penalty of about 7 minutes each, with a dwell of 50 seconds per stop. High-speed trains take a lot of time to decelerate and accelerate.

    However, sometimes lines in built-up areas have lower speed limits due to curves and noise issues, reducing the time penalty. California’s HSR authority believes the time penalty incurred by each extra stop in the Bay Area is only 3 minutes, and the Shinkansen has some stops in urban areas that Nozomi trains only save 2 minutes skipping.

  • Max Wyss

    These numbers sound plausible to me.

    Again, not knowing the details, I would estimate the speed of the Nozomi through the stops with 2 minutes time difference to be around, but not much above 100 km/h.

    On the other hand, extrapolating my recent experiences on Amtrak, I would put some doubts on the 3 minutes in the Bay area, unless the line speed in that area is at around 80 km/h … but then, it can never be excluded that the California operator looks and learns from overseas .

    Just for curiosity’s sake, I checked the schedules for the TGV Est Europe. The nonstop trains between Paris and Nancy take 1:30; the one stopping at Meuse TGV takes 1:38… again 8 minutes penalty for stopping at a stop out in the boonies.

    Between Paris and Strasbourg, a stop in Saverne (on the “old” line) adds between 3 and 5 minutes to the schedule.

    In addition, I looked at the differences between the TGVs and the TER200 between Basel and Strasbourg. The difference is 18 minutes, where the TGVs run at 220 km/h and have three stops less than the TER200, running at 200 km/h. (TGV: 1:08, stopping at Mulhouse; TER200: 1:26, stopping at St.Louis, Mulhouse, Colmar and Selestat; but TGV: 400 m long, technical top speed 320 km/h, TER200: 150 m long, technical top speed 200 km/h)

  • Amtrak’s diesel trains take much longer to accelerate to top speed. The electric trains accelerate faster – e.g. the Acela loses 5 minutes out of stopping in Metropark, in New Jersey’s 215 km/h zones.

  • Max Wyss

    A bit off-topic, but today, Sunday, December 20 2009 was not a good day for high speed rail. If you understand a little bit of French, have a loo here: http://www.infolignes.com/rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=10

    In short, no Eurostars through the channel tunnel, delays because of heavy snow in northern France, and in Paris; an hour or more delay with various TGVs because they were not prepared in time and ready at the departure platform… General delays of 10 to 30 minutes because of reduced speed on the high speed lines because of snow…

    Note: as far as is know right now, the Eurostars (technically TGVs) broke down in the Channel Tunnel, after running through very cold and snowy weather, and then the condensation and refreezing caused by the higher temperature in the tunnel caused electrical components to give up their ghost… The Eurotunnel shuttle trains are not affected, on the other hand because they don’t run very far outside of the tunnel.

  • AndyDuncan

    CHSRA’s time estimates for a San Diego-San Francisco run (991 km) of 3:54 minutes would give that line an even higher average speed (252 km/h) than the Wuhan-Guangzhou line. LA-SF is slightly faster (264 km/h), but not as long. Of course the SD-SF line doesn’t exist yet.

  • LaoLan

    Tickets on sale now for the High Speed Train between Guangzhou and Wuhan. The ticket lane is located at Guangzhou East Railway Station at the far left hand side of the ticket counters on the east side of the station’s main door way.

  • ez

    Hey, it’s THREE hours, not FOUR!!!

  • Thanks for the comments on speed and distance, everyone. I adjusted the piece a bit and added an update at the end.

  • W. K. Lis

    “Unlike Western countries, which tend to prioritize the preservation of existing city centers and which are willing to alter routes dramatically to respond to citizen concerns, Chinese officials can ram through huge, invasive infrastructure projects virtually anywhere. In general, this means Chinese trains are able to accelerate more quickly and maintain their top running speeds even in heavily populated areas.”

    Except for highways! The U.S., in the latter part of the 20th century, would ram though wide highways in cities. At least with the railway, they use a narrower right-of-way compared with highways.

  • andrew

    Indeed, it’s somewhat silly to include the DC -> Newport News segment as part of the high-speed Northeast Corridor. I used to live near Newport News, and you’d be an idiot to use it if you also owned a car (NN is also home to one of the worst bus services on the planet). Even at that, AirTran runs several flights a day to NYC that are cheaper and more convenient than the train.

    There are urban metro systems that run faster and stay closer to their schedule than those trains, not to mention that only 2 trains run the route in each direction every day.

    Also note that the Richmond to Newport News segment is particularly bad, as it is single-tracked the entire way, stops just barely short of Norfolk/VA Beach (a huge metropolitan area), and shares a track with a very busy freight line.

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