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What is a High Speed Rail System?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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High speed rail systems are trains that operate at a significantly higher speed than normal trains, although the exact definition of speed varies between experts and agencies. Found in many urban areas, high speed railways offer passengers a fast and efficient alternative to other modes of public transportation. Although extremely popular in Europe and parts of Asia, high speed rail is noticeably absent in most of the United States, due to overwhelming preference for personal transportation using cars.

Governing and authoritative bodies all offer different definitions for what constitutes a high speed rail system. The European Union's railway authorities limit the term to trains that regularly travel at speeds over 125 miles per hour (200 kilometers per hour), although the limit is higher for trains built on newer tracks. In the United States, high speed trains must travel above 90 mph (145 kph) to be classified as high speed.

High speed rail was developed in the mid-twentieth century, gaining considerable popularity after the end of World War II. Japan was one of the earliest countries to incorporate high speed railways into its system of public transportation. Shinkansen, or the bullet train, opened in 1964 as a service between the metropolitan areas of Tokyo and Osaka. Since then, the railway has been a model of fast, safe, and efficient travel that extends across most of the country.

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As with any technology based on speed, it is natural that experiments continually test just how fast trains can travel. Using the newest technology, Japan currently claims the world record for speed, at 361 mph (581 kph). The train that achieved this speed, the MLX01, runs primarily through magnetic levitation technology. This newer method of moving trains, often called maglev, uses magnets to pull the train along at blinding speeds thanks to lowered friction. Although few maglev trains currently operate, Japan confidently plans to implement the technology throughout its high speed rail system by 2025.

As environmental concern rises in the wake of global warming, high speed rail has gained renewed interest in the 21st century. The United States, a country that has typically eschewed railways in favor of larger and larger highways and new car technology, has begun plans to build several high speed systems in different states. Following the example of the highly successful Acela line that links New York City and Washington, D.C, voters have approved plans and budgets for similar high speed rail lines in California. Commissions in Texas and Chicago are also involved in studies regarding the potential benefits of new high speed lines.

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