The Fastest Train in the USA does not qualify as high speed rail per international standards

In the United States, Amtrak’s Acela Express tops the speed charts, with three services sprinting between Wilmington and Baltimore Penn on the Northeast Corridor at 169.4 km/h (105 mph over about 360 miles). China now has a high speed (over 200 km/h or 120 mph) across 10,000 kilometers (6000 miles) of high speed track.

The International Union of Railways, the European Union defines high-speed rail as lines specially built for speeds greater than or equal to 250 km/h/155 mph, or lines that are specially upgraded with speeds greater hhan 200 km/h or 124 mph. The U.S. defines high-speed differently. Emerging rail has speeds of 145 to 177 km/h (90 to 110 mph) ; Regional rail has speeds of 177 to 241 km/h (110 to 150 mph); and Express rail has speeds of at least 241 km/h (150 mph).

By 2015, China should have 18,000 km (over 11,000 miles) of high speed rail and 40,000 km (almost 25,000 miles) of express rail (around 160 km/h or 100 mph). China currently has express service that averages 120 km/k (75 mph). China is speeding up the express service with top speeds of 200 km/h instead of 160 km/h.

The Railway Gazette International compiles in tabular form the fastest timetabled start-to-stop journeys between different pairs of stations in countries around the world. Most of the fastest timings occur between intermediate stations, where average speeds are not impeded by slow approaches to major city hubs.

Looking at the overall results, China, France, Spain, Japan and Taiwan are the top tier with their best start-to-stop timings averaging more than 250 km/h.

First place goes to Chinese Railways, which operates three trains a day over the 383 km between Shijiazhuang and Zhengzhou Dong in 81 min at an average speed of 283·7 km/h. Europe’s fastest trains remain SNCF’s TGV services on LGV Est linking Paris with Strasbourg and other towns in eastern France; TGV 5425 sprints the 167·6 km between Lorraine TGV and Champagne Ardenne TGV in 37 min at 271·8 km/h. Meanwhile, Spain overtakes Japan to take third place.

In total, nine countries now operate trains at average speeds higher than the once-hallowed 200 km/h mark. Turkey’s two-line high speed network is the latest to make the cut, with four trains averaging 203·5 km/h.

Elsewhere, Russia’s Sapsan service between Moscow and St Petersburg records the fastest timing for trains running over an upgraded conventional line; train 162 achieves a 194·5 km/h average between Bologoye and Chudovo.

US High Speed Rail Plans

California has been given the go ahead on building a high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles, a stretch of about 380 miles. The project is expected to cost $68 billion and be completed around 2028. If all projections are correct, the 600 or so kilometers laid down will take eight years longer than it would have taken China to build almost 48,000 kilometers.

In 2012, Amtrak proposed a $151 billion plan to build its first dedicated high speed rail line by 2040. Amtrak’s proposal called for construction of a high-speed capable rail line that would allow for a speed of 220 mph and cut trips between New York City and Washington, D.C. to 94 minutes

The Acela Express line had a ridership of 3,218,718 in 2010.

China plans 50,000 km or over 31000 miles of high speed rail by 2020

China plans 50,000 km or over 31000 miles of high speed rail network by 2020. It is unclear how much express rail China will have. Likely a lot of the 2020 high speed rail network will be upgrades to the express rail network. China is likely heading to a two tier 200 km/h and 350 km/h set of average speed high speed and regular high speed network.

China’s high speed rail ridership accounted for 20% of total rail passenger traffic in January 2011. Total rail passenger traffic exceeded 1.86 billion people in 2011, according to the Ministry of Railways.

China high speed rail traffic is growing at 28 percent a year for the last several years. China’s high-speed rail network will handle more passengers by early next year than the 54 million people a month who board domestic flights in the United States. This will put China’s annual high speed ridership at over 600 million. This will be about 200 times more than the Acela Express line and does not include the express network ridership.

China’s construction program will soon nearly double the size of several of the 16-platform stations.

Currently, China’s HSR features much lower ticket prices than similar systems in developed countries, but is still considerably higher than its conventional services. The distance from Beijing to Jinan is about 400 km or 250 miles. HSR would cost CNY186 (US$30) and 1 hour 32 minutes, while conventional trains will take 6 hours and cost only CNY75 (US$12). For comparison, Acela trains from Washington DC to New York City covering a slightly shorter distance (230miles) would cost $310 and 2 hour 45 minutes. China high-speed rail are usually about half the price of fares for planes.

China will invest $100 billion a year in its train system for years to come.

China’s high speed rail system is increasing tourism and other economic activity.

US Regulations prevent high speed rail

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has strict crash safety regulations for passenger railcars which trains in Europe—where passenger rail is well established and remarkably safe — do not have to meet. In order for railcars compatible with European regulations to meet FRA rules, they need to add significant bulk and weight, thus adding to both their manufacturing and operating costs.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) safety regulations lock U.S. trains into antiquated standards based on 1945 technology.

FRA regulations require train undercarriages to withstand 800,000 pounds of force without permanent defamation, explains Edmondson in “Reducing Passenger Train Procurement Costs.” The purpose of this “buff strength” requirement is to ensure that train cars can resist the impact of other cars. That may have made sense in 1945 when the standard was implemented, but European and Japanese train design has taken very different directions since then. In Europe train cars are built with crumple zones in non-occupied areas, reducing the need for rigid buff strength of only 337,200 pounds. Not only are European cars just as safe, Edmonson asserts, but trains are lighter, allowing them to decelerate and stop more quickly, and they are less prone to “telescoping,” in which the force of a crash causes passenger cars to climb over one another with devastating effect.

As a result, American trains are more expensive to build, weigh twice as much, require more energy to move, wreak havoc on rail infrastructure built for lighter cars, degrade performance and cost more to operate. Perhaps worst of all, because European (and Japanese) train designs are effectively precluded from the U.S. market, foreign manufacturers anticipate shorter manufacturing runs and charge more per train.

Buff strength requirements as we know them date back to 1912. The US Postal Service had been using baggage cars as mail cars. To save time, employees would sort mail as the train ran its route. Unfortunately, the baggage cars offered little protection in a crash, and employees were often injured or killed.

In 1912, the Railway Mail Service Specification was published to address this problem. It required the undercarriage of postal cars to be able to resist 400,000 lbs. of force without permanent damage, later increased to 800,000 lbs. at the recommendation of the Association of American Railroads in 1939 and made standard in 1945.

European regulators take the opposite tack of the FRA. Rather than rigidly resist a crash, Europeans design trains to gracefully deform in a controlled manner under the UIC design standard EN 15227. Crash energy management (CEM) uses crumple zones which are designed to absorb the energy of a crash. Buff strenth in E urope is 337,200 lbs of force.

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