» 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
|USA: Boston-Newport News
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.