An Analysis of The Global High-Speed Rail Networks

The era of high-speed rail (HSR) was inaugurated in Japan when the Tokaido line, linking Tokyo and Osaka, commenced operations in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.



Although trains could achieve 200 km/h by the early twentieth century, operational speeds rarely exceeded 130 km/h. The high-speed rail (HSR) era began in Japan with the Tokaido line, which connected Tokyo and Osaka and became operational in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Japan provided favourable conditions for establishing an HSR system, including a high population density and closely connected large cities. It was as simple as overlapping the HSR network across this spatial configuration. HSR is viewed as a cost-effective alternative to traffic and airport congestion. Evidence suggests that rail travel time is cut in half when a high-speed service is provided between two city pairs.

Since the 1980s, there has been a significant increase in traffic, accelerating the development of high-speed rail lines worldwide. The first European high-speed railway, 260 km/hr between Paris and Lyon, opened in 1981. Germany and Italy came next (1988), followed by Spain (1992), Belgium (1997), the United Kingdom (2003), and the Netherlands (2009). China, on the other hand, has seen the most remarkable developments. Since the first high-speed rail line between Beijing and Tianjin was inaugurated in 2008, several high-speed rail corridors have been rapidly developed, reaching 19,000 km in 2016 and 37,900 km in 2020, making it the world’s longest. Several countries, including the United States, also plan high-speed rail networks. However, these projects typically take decades due to funding challenges, the modest relevance of current passenger rail services, and the dominance of air and automobile transport. Dedicated high-speed postal trains are used daily in Europe (for example, in France and Sweden). Nonetheless, due to the significant fall in postal use, such ventures have unclear development prospects.

High-speed rail currently functions under two discrete technologies:

  • Improvement of conventional rail: The first kind operates on existing conventional rail systems, and its high speed is due primarily to significant advances in locomotive performance and train design. They may not be regarded as pure high-speed trains in and of themselves. This technology is used in England (London – Edinburgh), Sweden (Stockholm – Gothenburg), Italy (Rome – Florence and Rome – Milan), and the United States (Boston – Washington). In most situations, trains can reach peak speeds of around 200 km/h, and in Italy, they can reach up to 250 km/h. The main disadvantage of using and implementing this transportation system is that it must share existing lines with ordinary passenger and freight services, limiting the number of slots available to HSR.
  • Exclusive high-speed networks: The second category of high-speed trains, on the other hand, operates on its own exclusive and independent lines. Trains in Japan can reach speeds of 240 km/h, but continuing attempts to increase peak speeds to 300 km/h aim to keep rail passenger travel competitive with air. The TGV Sud-Est (Trains a Grande Vitesse) in France can achieve speeds of 270 km/h, whereas the TGV Atlantique can reach 300 km/h. One of the primary benefits of such a system is that, while passenger trains have their tracks, rail freight transport becomes more efficient because it inherits virtually exclusive use of the standard and conventional rail system.

The first high-speed rail networks were created to support national systems, particularly along major corridors. In Europe, this evolution has reached the point where several national high-speed systems are being integrated. This includes, for example, Eurostar (Paris-Lille-London) and Thalys (Paris-Brussels-Antwerp-Rotterdam-Amsterdam). As a result, when designing high-speed rail networks, the limitations that follow should be considered:

  • Commercial potential: High-speed rail is ideally suited to a network of large urban regions nearby, where it can provide a travel time benefit, a significant aspect of its competitiveness. Short-haul air services are thriving, indicating an established market of passengers who value quick services.
  • Distance between stations: A distance of 50 km is frequently regarded as a minimum, allowing trains to accelerate and attain cruising speed, making the benefits of high-speed rail applicable. Too many stations undercut the rationale of high-speed lines, which is to serve large urban agglomerations quickly and continuously.
  • Right-of-way separation from other rail systems: This is especially true in and around metropolitan regions, where high-speed trains must traverse the regular rail network to connect to essential rail terminals.
  • Availability of land for terminals and high-speed lines: This issue can be addressed using existing central rail stations. The construction of new HSR stations has frequently necessitated the utilisation of suburban greenfield areas. China has overcome this issue by building substantial pieces of its HSR system atop bridges. While a kilometre of rail requires around 28 hectares of land per km, bridges reduce this footprint to approximately 11 hectares. In addition, the bridge components may be mass-produced and assembled quickly, lowering construction costs and time.

Benefits and Challenges

HSR offers numerous economic, social, and environmental benefits to its corridors. The most notable are:

  • Capacity and Reliability: HSR corridors can transport many passengers safely and dependably. Depending on its construction, a high-speed rail corridor can handle up to 400,000 passengers daily. They can help to alleviate traffic congestion on roads and airports, especially for short to medium-distance excursions. They are also less affected by poor weather conditions (e.g., storms) than road and air transport, allowing them to continue to provide services in situations that would cripple road and especially air operations.
  • Energy and Environment: HSR systems use less energy per passenger-kilometer than road or air transportation. With electric power and denser land use forms associated with rail-oriented developments, they are thought to provide more sustainable mobility.

High-speed rail networks can significantly impact other transportation, including freight transport. One of the most visible effects is on air transport services connecting cities along the high-speed rail track, particularly the most distant ones. High-speed rail can compete well with short- to medium-distance air transport services since it can service downtown regions and has substantially shorter terminal times owing to fewer security requirements. High-speed rail usually has a service window of between 150 and 800 km because air transport is more efficient than 1,000 km. For city pairs closer than 500 kilometres apart, implementing high-speed rail services will likely eliminate commercial air services, as they will no longer be competitive in terms of time and cost. Flights over 1,500 km in length are frequently unaffected. Because the world’s most active air routes are short hauls of less than 1,000 kilometres, this can significantly impact air transportation. However, low-cost air services can compete with HSR in specific niches.

Another rising trend is HSR-air transport complementarity, which entails collaboration between a national air and train carrier. Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn, as well as Air France and SNCF, provide single fares and tickets for specific routes where a high-speed rail portion is available instead of a flight. Thus, there is a balance between competition and complementarity for HSR and air transportation services, especially when the air transportation system is congested. In this case, complementarity could assist in freeing up airport gate spaces for more revenue-generating (longer-distance) flights or relieve congestion. Additionally, introducing HSR usually boosts demand for travel between city pairs, which can help air transportation.

Rail stations with high-speed rail services are also progressively becoming transportation centres, putting pressure on urban transportation networks, notably public transportation. Two dynamics have emerged in high-speed rail stations:

  • Reconversion and utilisation of central railway stations. Because of their central location, such facilities benefit from excellent accessibility levels and can thus provide a considerable client base for HSR services. This is especially true for the European system, which uses existing tracks to connect important railway stations (e.g., Paris, Frankfurt, Munich), avoiding costly development projects such as new stations or tunnel construction.
  • The construction of new facilities in the suburbs. The HSR station, in this context, represents an opportunity to establish a new node of activity (growth pole) within a metropolitan area.

There are various potential consequences for goods transportation, most of which are indirect. The most obvious reason is that because high-speed rail has its right of way, separating passenger and freight stretches improves the efficiency and reliability of both networks. The fundamental reason is that people and freight have different operational characteristics, precisely service speed and regularity. The extra slot can hold three more goods rail cars for every passenger car eliminated from standard rail lines. Establishing high-speed networks may also spur more investments in rail freight infrastructure, particularly in metropolitan regions, as well as improved signalling systems and cost-sharing efforts and initiatives.

Although there have been dialogues and exchanges regarding the potential of using and employing high-speed rail for carrying goods, only limited implementations have occurred. Europe plans to build a high-speed rail cargo network connecting key air cargo hubs such as Paris, Liege, Amsterdam, London, and Frankfurt. The purpose is to give an alternative to short-haul air cargo routes and the option of moving cargo between hubs and improving long-distance air freight connectivity. In China, express package delivery services have been deployed and cover most of the network using existing high-speed rail equipment. It is beneficial for transporting cold chain products such as drugs, medicines and food. However, such services remain challenging due to limited cargo capacity and the need to load and unload items quickly during a station stop.

However, in the medium run, high-speed rail does not have the far-reaching effects on passenger mobility that its supporters claim. Although high-speed rail is regarded as a success in Europe, its installation requires large subsidies, and profitability remains elusive. For Spain, the world’s second-longest system in terms of length, the process has been primarily political, intending to connect provincial capitals with the national capital (Madrid). Low fares are the most crucial determinant in mode selection in underdeveloped and developing countries, meaning that HSR is beyond the reach of most people. The location of stations remains a significant challenge, as suburban locations are favourable and advantageous regarding land availability. Suburban areas, on the other hand, are not well connected to the local transport system and are far from core areas, which are often the location and centres for most passenger flow. The effects of new HSR stations as focal points for urban expansion and development are still unknown.

New Technologies

In addition to current technologies, a completely new technological paradigm has existed since the late 1970s, initially in Japan and Germany. Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) is a revolutionary technology that uses magnetic forces to raise trains, guide and direct them laterally, and propel them, relying on highly efficient electromagnetic systems. In 2003, Shanghai inaugurated the world’s first commercial maglev rail system. However, there have been several barriers to the mainstream commercialisation of Maglev systems, such as integration challenges with established rail corridors and perceptions of exorbitant and high construction costs. The hyperloop concept, which comprises a maglev vehicle (e.g., a pod) cycling in a vacuum tube, was introduced in 2012 as a further technology development. Lower air friction allows for substantially higher operational speeds in the 1,000 km/hr range. Although such systems have not yet been built, several short-distance corridors might be developed by 2025-30.

High-Speed Rail Network in India

Indian Railways has no operational high-speed rail lines, even though eight corridors have been approved, with the corridor between Mumbai and Ahmedabad currently under development. The Gatimaan Express and Rani Kamalapati (Habibganj)-Hazrat Nizamuddin Vande Bharat Express have a top operational speed of 160 km/h on the Tughlakabad-Agra Cantonment section of the route as of 2023. The first high-speed railway corridor (508 km) between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is now under advancement, with a planned maximum operational speed of 320 km/h. The corridor will be built utilising Shinkansen technology and employ standard gauges rather than the more common broad gauges on the rest of the rail network. It is estimated to take roughly three hours to carry passengers between the two cities, with ticket prices competitive with air travel. This project was initially scheduled to be completed by December 2023, but due to land acquisition difficulties in Maharashtra and the COVID-19 epidemic, it is now estimated to be finished by October 2028. However, a section of this line between Surat City and Bilimora will open in 2026.

Policy Advocacy & Long-Term Prospects for High-Speed Rail

  • Economic Viability: Analysts believe that certain countries may have over-extended their HSR networks, claiming and asserting that revenues and profit margins have declined and that low-cost flights and car-sharing services may be luring some customers away from train options. However, the facts appear to contradict these recommendations and words of caution. HSR lines have proven profitable in China, and HSR gives a lower cost and shorter travel time option to air travel for many of the shorter routes in Asia and Europe. Advocates claim and argue that increasing the number of cities with HSR hubs will geometrically multiply the utility of HSR to travellers, resulting in long-term economic and lifestyle benefits for all inhabitants.
  • Competition with other technologies: Magnetic levitation (maglev) and hyperloop technologies offer ever-faster rail speeds. Maglev is already a proven technology: China has been operating a maglev train between Shanghai and Pudong International Airport since 2004, with speeds of up to 430 km/h. The line travels 30 kilometres in seven minutes. China is one of just three countries (together with Japan and South Korea) with a maglev train in operation.
  • Hyperloop systems, which involve propelling trains through sealed tubes with as little air as possible to eliminate air resistance, are still in developmental stages. Both maglev and hyperloop systems necessitate constructing and developing entirely new rail lines, putting continued investment in more traditional HSR technology into doubt. However, supporters argue that, unlike these other rail transport systems, HSR is an established technology and a far lower risk investment for governments and urban planners. Both maglev and hyperloop are extremely expensive and may offer health and safety problems that regular HSR does not.
  • Transportation Benefits: Many would argue that the ability of a mass transit or transportation system to carry people and products, rather than economic development, should be a significant issue. This is how highway and airport construction projects are assessed. Every country that develops HSR does so for the high capacity, long-term transportation it provides, with economic development and improved safety as beneficial and acceptable side effects.
  • Energy Savings: Reducing the number of cars on roads and highways results in significant energy savings and lower oil demand. High-speed rail is more than four times as energy efficient as driving a car and over nine times more efficient than flying, according to International Union of Railways (UIC) research.

Environmental Considerations: High-speed rail has a lower carbon footprint than other means of transportation. If HSR services can attract people to abandon their automobiles by providing convenience and speed at a low cost, societal energy consumption and carbon emissions will be considerably reduced. The California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), for example, estimates that by 2040, California’s HSR system will reduce vehicle miles travelled in the state by 10 million miles per day; over 58 years, the system will reduce auto traffic on the state’s highways by over 400 billion miles of travel. CHSRA also projects that commencing in 2030, the state will experience a reduction of 93 to 171 flights per day, resulting in enhanced air quality and health and the economic benefits of a more energy-efficient transportation system.

Many countries currently have laws and policies prompting corporations and consumers to cut their emissions, and an agreement on these trends is expected to develop and emerge over time. High-speed rail can provide the triple bottom line (economic, social, and environmental sustainability) advocated for by numerous policymakers over the years. 

The Global High–Speed Rail Network

Sr. No.CountryIn Opera­tion (Km)Under Construction
Max. speed
7United Kingdom113220300
8South Korea660.91,630.7305
13United States7351,789.3240
16Saudi Arabia4491,691300
28Hong Kong26200
Map Showing High-Speed Rail Network in Japan

High-speed networks under construction


Sr. No.CountryUnder
Total (km)
Max. Speed
Latvia Lithuania
5Czech Republic463.72660200
24South Africa0721350
29New Zealand0110250

Freight High-Speed Railway Services

CountryService StatusIntro­ducedMaximum Speed (Km/Hr)Average Speed (Km/Hr)
GermanyWithdrawn by 19971980200
FranceWithdrawn by 20151984270
ItalyIn service2015300180
ChinaIn service on busy routes2020350180
Map Showing High-Speed Rail Network in Europe

Missile carriers

CountryService statusIntro­ducedMaximum speed (Km/Hr)Network length
 ChinaIn development2025+35040,000+ km


Because of the epidemic, there has been a shift in customer mobility preferences, reviving demand for low-carbon transportation alternatives such as long-distance rail travel. With more passengers opting for environmentally friendly travel, HSR (High-Speed Rail) is frequently referred to as the transportation medium of the future for a variety of reasons. High-speed trains also play an essential part in regional integration and the creation of socio-economically balanced communities on a global scale. The current evolutionary trend of the global HSR network shows a significant rise in network length in Asian countries. High-speed rail development and implementation are being investigated in every region of the world. End-to-end transport is required, and intermodal service complementarity is one of the variables influencing HSR’s operational and financial performance. High-speed rail combines many different elements that make up a ‘whole, integrated system’: an infrastructure for new lines designed for speeds of 250 km/h and above, upgraded existing lines for speeds of up to 200 or even 220 km/h, including interconnecting lines between high-speed sections; its rolling stock, designed explicitly for train sets; telecommunications, signalling, operating conditions and equipment, and so on. Over the next 20 years, technology is likely to have a significant impact on infrastructure development.

Because many high-speed trains are also compatible with the traditional network, the phrase ‘high-speed traffic’ is also frequently used to describe the movement of such trains on regular lines but at slower speeds than those permitted on high-speed infrastructure. Every year, about three billion passengers travel by high-speed train. High-speed rail is expanding worldwide, with about 56,000 kilometres of track presently in operation. This figure is expected to be more than doubled in 30 years. Given the increased demand for low-carbon transportation alternatives such as long-distance rail travel, railroad organisations and companies are launching, developing, or resurrecting night train services to establish new connections and expand the current night train network. This includes creating attractive and engaging services to fulfil the expanding demands of passengers, such as competitive travel times, comfort, good connectivity (thereby supporting regional development between smaller towns and rural areas), and being more environmentally friendly.

The high-speed railway network is expanding rapidly and in a dynamic way. Even the pandemic did not prevent the expansion of high-speed rail networks, whose total length increased from 44,000 km in 2020 to around 59,000 km in 2022, an increase of more than one-third of nearly thirty-five per cent. The number of countries adopting high-speed railways continues to increase as additional countries launch projects. The length of the worldwide high-speed railway network has reached nearly 59,000 km, with the Asia Pacific region leading with a system of more than 44,400 km of lines, followed by Europe with a system of nearly 12,000 km, and the Middle East ranking third with a network of 1,500 km. North America and Africa follow with 735 km and 186 km, respectively.

The economic environment, the availability of funding sources, the geopolitical scenario, the will of decision-makers, and a knowledge of the benefits of rail over other means of transportation all influence the development of high-speed rail. These benefits include safety, low emissions, improved quality, and safe travel. High-speed investment is not an indulgence but rather an investment in changing the mobility and social behaviour systems. The worldwide high-speed rail network has been expanding in recent years, with countries increasingly opting for this mode of transportation. The high-speed rail network now under construction represents a 33% global system expansion.

Since 2018, high-speed rail has advanced significantly. Since then, three countries have operated high-speed lines: Denmark, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. Over the last four years, the global HSR network has grown by twenty per cent, with 10,000 km of new lines added. The HSR network in Asia is extensive, and it is still growing. There are some well-served countries in Europe, and others are working to enhance their high-speed rail networks. Turkey is expanding and connecting its rail network in the Middle East, while Iran is revolutionising its rail network by constructing new high-speed lines.

North America is now building the first high-speed line, with ambitions to expand the network. Africa is also aiming to develop this network, particularly Egypt, which has large projects in the developmental stages. Over 6,500 high-speed trains operate on these networks, with China accounting for more than half (54.75%). According to UIC’s High-Speed Rail Atlas 2022, more than 19,700 km of new high-speed lines are under construction in the five global regions, with 14,367 km in Asia Pacific, over 3,000 km in Europe, 2,000 km in the Middle East, and 274 km in North America. The plans emphasise a 33% increase in the global high-speed rail network over the current network.

Asia Pacific plans 25,200 miles in the medium and long term, Europe more than 9,000 km, the Middle East over 5,000 km, and Africa 6,400 km. Long-term plans for the American continent include a total network of 7,400 km, 6,800 km in North America and 638 km in Latin America. Morocco decided to build a high-speed railway network in 2006, and the first line opened in 2018. There are plans to build new lines to provide better services and connections and shift traffic to railways, the most essential mode of transportation capable of reducing emissions across the entire transportation system. Morocco’s line connects Tangier and Casablanca with trains that travel at 320 km/h. The 186-kilometer high-speed railway connects two economic hubs, cutting travel time between Tangier and Kenitra to 50 minutes, down from more than three hours before the route went into service. Morocco also intends to construct an additional 640 km of high-speed lines, which will be opened in stages until 2029. The country will construct a 55-kilometer high-speed link between Kenitra and Rabat, which is due to open in 2027. The 240-kilometer route between Casablanca and Marrakech is expected to open in 2028, followed by the Rabat-Casablanca (105-kilometer) high-speed line in 2029. There is also a plan to create a 240 km route between Marrakech and Agadir on the Atlantic Ocean’s coast, allowing trains to travel at 250 km/h.

Japan’s E5 Series Shinkansen

Maglev trains, commonly known as magnetic levitation trains, are another type of fast rail technology. Maglev trains lift several inches above the track or guideway using electromagnetic force. By removing a significant source of friction—the wheels on the rails—these trains may go at higher speeds than traditional trains, have longer-lasting parts, and are exceedingly quiet and smooth to ride. One difficulty in developing maglev trains is that they necessitate new infrastructure that cannot be integrated and associated with the existing and operational railroads.

Apart from construction expenses, another aspect to be considered in building maglev rail systems is using rare-earth elements (scandium, yttrium, and 15 lanthanides), which can be significantly expensive to recover and refine. To raise and guide train carriages along a guideway, rare-earth magnets provide a greater magnetic field than ferrite (iron compounds) or alnico (alloys of iron, aluminium, nickel, cobalt and copper) magnets. In 2021, China announced that their maglev train might reach 600 kilometres (373 miles) per hour on a short route between an airport in Shanghai and a station in the city centre. That would make it the world’s fastest land vehicle. Japan and South Korea also have short maglev train routes and railway tracks.

In the context of today’s transport system, environmental concerns, and the transformations that cities and urban localities around the world are undergoing, it is imperative to state that high-speed rail is perhaps the wisest path to take to avoid a narrow vision of rail’s potential and to reinforce the high-speed system’s place as one of the most appropriate solutions for establishing an eco-mobility more concerned with the challenges and issues of travel around the globe.

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