The Fastest Trains on the Track

090511_highspeedtrainsHigh speed train traveling through the French countryside
G. Bowater/Corbis

Trains traveling at 200 miles per hour are now departing from stations around the globe. But are similar ones coming to a town near you?

If the overseas trend is any indication, high-speed trains in the U.S. will attract travelers in droves. On train trips under four and a half hours in Europe, more than half of travelers choose high-speed rail over flying—and on rail journeys lasting two hours or less, trains win out 90 percent of the time. Why? Not only is traveling by train more pleasant, but checking in and clearing security is a breeze compared to the chaotic, inefficient airport scene. For a glimpse into what our future might hold, hop aboard these high-speed lines in Europe and Asia.

FRANCE
Paris to Strasbourg: 200 mph, 2 hours and 19 minutes (from $68 at raileurope.com)
Comparable flight: 1 hour on Air France, $79

After this TGV line opened in June 2007, air traffic between Paris and Strasbourg plummeted, down from 50,000 passengers in August 2006 to 35,000 passengers a year later. Trains are equipped with bars and cafes, but even though this is France, the food is notoriously mediocre—and expensive. Do like the locals and bring some snacks and a bottle of wine (or two) on board.

SPAIN
Madrid to Barcelona: 220 mph, 2 hours and 30 minutes (from $169 at raileurope.com)
Comparable flight: 1 hour and 15 minutes on Air Europa, $40

In 2007, the Madrid-Barcelona flight route qualified as the busiest in the world, with 971 departures per week. And though flights between the cities are still plentiful and cheap, the high-speed AVE train line, which averages 150 miles per hour and opened in 2008, is horning in on the action. While 72 percent of people flew between the two cities in 2007, only 60 percent took to the air in 2008—and experts say that within two years it will be an even split.

CHINA
Beijing to Tianjin: 217 mph, 30 minutes (from $9 at the train station)
No comparable flight

Timed to open for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the high-speed CRH Intercity Rail connects Tianjin—a city of nearly 12 million that hosted preliminary Olympic soccer games—with the new, super sleek Beijing South Train Station, the largest rail hub in Asia. The train hums along at 217 miles per hour, completing the journey in less than half the time it used to. The track is one of many high-speed lines planned for ever-expanding China: Beijing-Shanghai service, expected to open in the next couple of years, will zip between the cities in just five hours. Right now, the ride takes about 12 hours.

ITALY
Milan to Naples: 186 mph, 5 hours and 35 minutes (from $122 at italiarail.com)
Comparable flight: 1 hour, 30 minutes, on EasyJet, $45

Introduced in late 2008, Italy's 186-mph ES (Eurostar Italia) line trims three hours or more off the time it used to take to ride from Milan to Naples. All ES trains have dining cars, bars, and air-conditioning, which shouldn't be taken for granted in Italy. Some local trains, including the Interregionale (IR) and Regionale (REG) lines, have A/C, while others don't—and they're the last place you want to be on a hot summer day.

JAPAN
Tokyo to Osaka: 186 mph, 2 hours and 36 minutes ($134 at the train station; also included in Japan rail passes, from $285 for a seven-day pass at japanrail.com)
Comparable flight: 1 hour and 5 minutes on Japan Airlines, $229

Japan was the first country to build tracks specifically for high-speed ("bullet") trains, and today there are more than 1,300 miles of smooth-riding rails on which passengers cruise up to 186 miles per hour. With announcements made in English, the Shinkansen system is easily navigable by foreign tourists. But be aware of local custom: Surfing the Web or listening to your iPod in your seat is perfectly acceptable, but yapping away on your cell phone is considered beyond rude.

ENGLAND/FRANCE
London to Paris: 186 mph, 2 hours and 25 minutes (from $98 at eurostar.com)
Comparable flight: 1 hour and 20 minutes on EasyJet, $30

It's been 15 years since the Eurostar began transporting passengers beneath the English Channel—through a tunnel dubbed the Chunnel that has the longest undersea portion of any tunnel in the world. The journey, which maxes out at 186 miles per hour, still packs a thrill. Even though low-cost carriers have made flights cheap, Eurostar riders depart and arrive at city-center train stations, which saves them the time and money it would have taken to reach airports way outside of downtown.

DOES THE U.S. MATCH UP?
If President Obama has his way, the U.S. will give its transportation infrastructure the first major update since the interstate highway projects of the 1950s. There is roughly $8 billion of stimulus money earmarked for high-speed rail projects, and the first grants are expected to be awarded by the end of summer.

Right now, the only high-speed line in the entire U.S. is the Acela Express, which connects Northeastern cities including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston and maxes out at 150 miles per hour—but averages a paltry 86 miles per hour because of stops, rail traffic, and outmoded sections of track that simply aren't safe for high speed locomotives.

New York City to Washington, D.C.:135 mph, 2 hours and 52 minutes ($155 at amtrak.com)
Comparable flight: 1 hour and 15 minutes on US Airways (La Guardia-Reagan National) from $64

South of New York, the Acela is only allowed to hit 135 miles per hour for safety reasons, so the trip between the Big Apple and D.C. takes longer than you might think. Standard Amtrak trains take only a half-hour longer to complete the same journey.

Philadelphia to Boston: 150 mph, 5 hours ($115 at amtrak.com)
Comparable flight: 2 hours and 40 minutes on US Airways with one stop ($191), or 1 hour and 15 minutes on United ($531)

If the Acela could zip consistently along at its top speed of 150 miles per hour, this roughly 300-mile trip would take about two hours (plus some brief time for stops). Instead, it's a five-hour slog—about the same time it takes in a car—and a prime example of the room for improving U.S. train service.

All fares cited here are based on one-way train or plane travel in June 2009 as quoted at press time.

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