High-Speed Rail History

Timeline of High-Speed Rail - text

19th – 20th century: From the birth of the railways to HSR

Because the rail mode is a guided and low grip transportation system, the history of the railway is an endless history of speed.

Since the origins of rail in Europe, during the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the 19th century, the speed of passenger trains was of the essence for competition – not necessarily with other transport modes, but with other rail companies. It also provided concrete evidence of technological development in the most advanced countries at that time. If, in 1829, the 50 km/h reached by the impressive “Rocket” locomotive from George Stephenson was understandably regarded as high speed rail, it did not take long to achieve even more impressive performances: 100 km/h before 1850, 130 km/h in 1854, and even 200 km/h at the beginning of the 20th century. However, these are just rail speed records. The maximum speed in revenue operation was much more modest but nevertheless important. In the 1930s, the top and the average speeds between two cities using steam, electric or diesel power were 180 km/h and 135 km/h respectively. However, the emergence of other transport modes, such as aviation (faster) and private cars (point-topoint private travel at any time), prompted railways to take further steps to keep up with competition.

1964: The birth of Shinkansen

After some significant speed records in Europe (in Germany, Italy, UK and particularly in France – 331 km/h in 1955), the world was surprised when, on 1 October 1964, the Japanese National Railways began operation of a brand new, 515-km, standard gauge line (1 435 mm, unlike the conventional metre-gauge lines previously built in Japan) : the Tokaido Shinkansen, from Tokyo Central to Shin Osaka. This line aimed to provide the transport system with a capacity commensurate with the impressively rapid growth of the Japanese economy. JNR promoted the concept of not only a new line, but a new transport system, which was later extended to the rest of the country and became the backbone of passenger transport for future generations in Japan. Tokaido Shinkansen was conceived to operate at 210 km/h (this was later increased), with a broad loading gauge, electric motor units powered at 25 kV AC, Automatic Train Control (ATC), Centralised Traffic Control (CTC) and other modern improvements.

High-Speed Rail (HSR) was born.

1964 – 1981: The advent of the TGV

After the huge technical and commercial success of Shinkansen, several European countries, particularly France, Germany, and Italy, developed new technologies and innovations aimed at overcoming the decline of rail market shares. Despite an uncertain future (introduction of Concorde, political opposition, the first petrol crisis in 1973, etc.), SNCF, the French national railway company, began operation of the first high speed line between Paris and Lyon on 27 September 1981, at a maximum speed of 260 km/h.

The new European HSR rapidly proliferated and expanded its services, thanks to its interoperability with the existing rail network.

1981 – 2018: HSR services spreading throughout the world

Encouraged by these French and Japanese success stories, several European countries began looking to establish a new generation of competitive long- and medium-distance passenger rail services, either by developing their own technology or by importing it. Italy and Germany in 1988, Spain in 1992, Belgium in 1997, the United Kingdom in 2003 and the Netherlands in 2009 joined the club of countries offering high speed rail services in Europe. In the meantime, some similar cases appeared in other countries and regions, such as China in 2003, South Korea in 2004, Taiwan in 2007 and Turkey in 2009. After the 120-km high speed line from Beijing to Tianjin was commissioned in August 2008, China changed scale and moved towards a much wider strategy by implementing more than 20 000 km of new high speed lines and acquiring more than 1 200 trainsets, eventually taking the global HSR lead.

Following the example of China, many new high speed systems are now under development, under construction or just starting operation (Morocco, Saudi Arabia, USA, etc.), demonstrating that HSR can operate worldwide regardless of the geography, the demography, the climate, the economic and political context, and the culture of the country.

For further information about high-speed lines around the world:

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Friday 24 July 2015