kids encyclopedia robot

High-speed rail facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Eurostar, thalys at gare du nord
Eurostar and Thalys PBA TGVs side-by-side in the Paris-Gare du Nord. Eurostar trains connect London with Brussels and Paris through the Channel Tunnel. Thalys trains connect Paris with Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne.
World speed record holding (581 km/h) JR-Maglev in Yamanashi, Japan

High-speed rail (HSR) is a type of rail transport network utilizing trains that run significantly faster than those of traditional rail, using an integrated system of specialized rolling stock and dedicated tracks. While there is no single standard that applies worldwide, lines built to handle speeds above 250 km/h (155 mph) or upgraded lines in excess of 200 km/h (124 mph) are widely considered to be high-speed.

The first high-speed rail system, the Tōkaidō Shinkansen, began operations in Honshū, Japan, in 1964. Due to the streamlined spitzer-shaped nose cone of the locomotive, the system also became known by its English nickname bullet train. Japan's example was followed by several European countries, initially in France and Germany, and later also in Spain, Italy, and others. Today Europe has an extensive network with numerous international connections. More recent construction since the 21st century has led to China taking a leading role in high-speed rail. As of 2023, its network accounted for over two-thirds of the world's total.

High-speed trains mostly operate on standard gauge tracks of continuously welded rail on grade-separated rights of way with large radii. However, certain regions with wider legacy railways, including Russia and Uzbekistan, have sought to develop a high-speed railway network in Russian gauge. There are no narrow gauge high-speed trains. Countries whose legacy network is entirely or mostly of a different gauge than 1435mm – including Japan, Spain and India – have however often opted to build their high speed lines to standard gauge instead of the legacy railway gauge.

High-speed rail is the fastest and most efficient ground-based method of commercial transportation, however due to requirements for large track curves, gentle gradients and grade separated track the construction of high-speed rail is more costly than conventional rail and therefore does not always present an economical advantage over conventional speed rail.

HSR Advantages

  • Less boarding infrastructure: Although air transit moves at higher speeds than high-speed rail, total time to destination can be increased by travel to/from far out airports, check-in, baggage handling, security, and boarding, which may also increase cost to air travel.
  • Short range advantages: Trains may be preferred in short to mid-range distances since rail stations are typically closer to urban centers than airports. Likewise, air travel needs longer distances to have a speed advantage after accounting for both processing time and transit to the airport.
  • Urban centers: Particularly for dense city centers, short-hop air travel may not be ideal to serve these areas as airports tend to be far out of the city, due to land scarcity, short runway limitations, building heights, as well as airspace issues.
  • Weather: Rail travel also requires less weather dependency than air travel. A well-designed and operated rail system can only be affected by severe weather conditions, such as heavy snow, heavy fog, and major storm. Flights however, often face cancellations or delays under less severe conditions.
  • Comfort: High-speed trains also have comfort advantages, since train passengers are allowed to move freely about the train at any point in the journey. Since airlines have complicated calculations to try to minimise weight to save fuel or to allow takeoff at certain runway lengths, rail seats are also less subject to weight restrictions than on planes, and as such may have more padding and legroom. Technology advances such as continuously welded rail have minimised the vibration found on slower railways, while air travel remains affected by turbulence when adverse wind conditions arise. Trains can also accommodate intermediate stops at lower time and energetic costs than planes, though this applies less to HSR than to the slower conventional trains.
  • Delays: On particular busy air-routes – those that HSR has historically been most successful on – trains are also less prone to delays due to congested airports, or in the case of China, airspace. A train that is late by a couple of minutes will not have to wait for another slot to open up, unlike airplanes at congested airports. Furthermore, many airlines see short-haul flights as increasingly uneconomic and in some countries airlines rely on high-speed rail instead of short-haul flights for connecting services.
  • De-icing: HSR does not need to spend time deicing as planes do, which is time-consuming but critical; it can dent airline profitability as planes remain on the ground and pay airport fees by the hour, as well as take up parking space and contributing to congestive delays.
  • Hot and High: Some airlines have cancelled or move their flights to takeoff at night due to hot and high conditions. Such is the case for Hainan Airlines in Las Vegas in 2017, which moved its long haul takeoff slot to after midnight. Similarly, Norwegian Air Shuttle cancelled all its Europe-bound flights during summer due to heat. high-speed rail may complement airport operations during hot hours when takeoffs become uneconomical or otherwise problematic.
  • Noise and pollution: Major airports are heavy polluters, downwind of LAX particulate pollution doubles, even accounting for Port of LA/Long Beach shipping and heavy freeway traffic. Trains may run on renewable energy, and electric trains produce no local pollution in critical urban areas at any rate. Noise also is an issue for residents.
  • Ability to serve multiple stops: An airplane spends significant amounts of time loading and unloading cargo and/or passengers as well as landing, taxiing and starting again. Trains spend only a few minutes stopping at intermediate stations, often greatly enhancing the business case at little cost.
  • Energy: high-speed trains are more fuel-efficient per passenger space offered than planes. Furthermore, they usually run on electricity, which can be produced from a wider range of sources than kerosene.


  • HSR usually requires land acquisition, for example in Fresno, US, where it was caught up in legal paperwork.
  • HSR is subject to land subsidence, where expensive fixes sent costs soaring in Taiwan.
  • HSR is affected by topography of the terrain as crossing mountain ranges or large bodies of water requires expensive tunnels and bridges.
  • HSR is costly due to required specialized infrastructure as well as advanced technologies and multiple safety systems.
  • The infrastructure is fixed hence the services provided are limited and can not be changed in response to changing market conditions. However, for passengers this can present an advantage as services are less likely to be withdrawn from railways compared to flight routes.
  • As the infrastructure can be extremely expensive, it is not possible to create a direct route between every major city. This means that a train might be transiting or stopping in intermediate stations, increasing the length and duration of a journey.
  • Railways require the security and cooperation of all geographies and governments involved.
  • As all HSRs are electrified they require an extended electricity grid to supply the Overhead lines


High-speed rail usually implements electric power and therefore its energy sources can be distant or renewable. The usage of electric power in high-speed rails can thereby result in a reduction of air pollutants as shown in a case study on China's high-speed railways throughout its development. This is an advantage over air travel, which currently uses fossil fuels and is a major source of pollution. Studies regarding busy airports such as LAX, have shown that over an area of about 60 square kilometres (23 square miles) downwind of the airport, where hundreds of thousands of people live or work, the particle number concentration was at least twice that of nearby urban areas, showing that airplane pollution far exceeded road pollution, even from heavy freeway traffic.


Airplanes and airstrips require trees to be cut down, as they are a nuisance to pilots. Some 3,000 trees will be chopped due to obstruction issues at Seattle–Tacoma International Airport. On the other hand, trees next to rail lines can often become a hazard during winter storms, with several German media calling for trees to be cut down following autumn storms in 2017.


HSR is much simpler to control due to its predictable course. High-speed rail systems reduce (but do not eliminate) collisions with automobiles or people, by using non-grade level track and eliminating grade-level crossings. To date, the only two deadly accidents involving a high-speed train on high-speed tracks in revenue service were the 1998 Eschede train disaster and the 2011 Wenzhou train collision (in which speed was not a factor).

Images for kids

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Alta velocidad ferroviaria para niños

kids search engine
High-speed rail Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.