Forty-five years after the first bullet train began operating in Japan, 10 other countries also have high-speed rail networks, and the United States just barely.
High-speed rail has become one of the most practical solutions for land travel across Japan, where more than 70 percent of the land is unsuited for road travel due to mountainous and uninhabitable terrain. Construction of the world's first high-speed line — the Shinkansen (“Bullet Train”) — was completed in 1964 from Tokyo to Osaka in the south, with a then-top speed of 130 mph; today it is 186 mph. In 1973 the transport minister, recognizing the interrelationship between land development and the high-speed rail network, approved construction plans to expand the Shinkansen nationwide with five additional lines.
Spurred by Japan's success, France in 1981 launched its Train à Grande Vitesse (“High-Speed Train”) — better known as the TGV (pronounced tay jay vay) — between Paris and Lyon. Unlike Japan's Shinkansen, however, the TGV uses existing track in urban areas as well as high-speed rail infrastructure. The dual-route capability facilitated the creation of new lines in France in the 1980s and '90s.
Cross-border service into Germany eventually led to the construction of Germany's own ICE (“Inter City Express”) lines in the late 1980s, also fitted for operation over older tracks and compatible with existing signaling systems.
Today seven European countries have high-speed rail services, with Spain becoming the latest newcomer. Launced in 2008, the sleek AVE (Alta Velocidad Española, or “Spanish High Speed”) train completes the 410-mile journey from Barcelona to Madrid — a popular business route — in two-and-a-half hours at an average speed of 164 mph. Construction plans anticipate that all provincial cities will be no more than four hours from Madrid, the capital and largest city. And as in Japan, all routes are being assembled from scratch.
Ridership statistics indicate growing acceptance for the AVE. In early 2008 airlines accounted for 72 percent of the 4.8 million long-distance passengers in Spain who traveled by air or rail. Today that figure is down to 60 percent. High-speed rail travel in the country grew by 28 percent during the same period.
“The numbers will be equal within two years,” says Josep Valls, a professor at the ESADE Business School in Barcelona.
Moreover, high-speed rail tickets tend to be more affordable than air or road travel thanks largely to government subsidies, with one-way fares for the Madrid-Barcelona line as low as $50. Renfe, the state-owned company that operates the trains, claims a 99 percent on-time departure rate.
Doubts linger, however, over the profitability of such endeavors. Government-subsidized expansions to Japan's Shinkansen, along with the growth of air travel, had put the state-owned Japanese National Railways in the red by $200 billion by 1987, eventually leading to the privatization of high-speed rail in Japan. Further expansions, though, continue to receive government subsidies. A growing auto industry has also contributed to a steady decline in high-speed ridership, even during periods of rising fuel prices.
Similar subsidies abound in Europe, where motor fuel taxes of between 300 and 400 percent provide annual rail subsidies of about $100 billion. Furthermore, as in Japan, many countries are experiencing declining passenger levels at the expense of expanding automobile traffic.
The declining ridership has led TGV construction planners to reconsider the placement of intermediate stations in certain French localities, according to a report by the UK rail-research organization Greengauge21.
But amid doubts over their viability, and even some questions over their usefulness, more and more high-speed lines are cropping up worldwide. Even China is getting on board. In April 2007 the country began operating several high-speed lines between major cities. Indeed, China's 3,800-mile network is longer than all European lines combined. China also boasts the Shanghai Maglev Train — the fastest commercial train in the world at 267 mph — although there have been criticisms over high ticket prices, limited operating hours and remote terminal locations.
A high-speed rail network also has emerged in nearby South Korea, with more planned in the Middle East and South Asia, in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and India.
Despite the popularity of such trains, a lack of synergy between systems has historically complicated connections across national borders. Passengers on the TGV, for example, cannot easily make connecting reservations for high-speed trains on Germany's ICE system or take a train from southern France to Barcelona.
Last July seven European transportation representatives banded together to form Railteam, an alliance to create a seamless, high-speed network across Western Europe. Functioning much like an airline alliance, Railteam is coordinating a common reservation system that's scheduled to begin later this year.
“The idea of a European network of high-speed rail is at last being realized,” said Guillaume Pépy, chairman of the high-speed London-Brussels-Paris Eurostar train service. “It will be a real alternative to air travel.”
— Darrell Dela Rosa