The history of railways is a history of speed.
Since the origin of railways in Europe during the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the 19th Century, the speed of passengers trains was an essential argument to compete, not necessarily with other transport modes (the railway in itself changed the scale of time for passenger travel) but among the different companies. The speed on rails also constituted an evidence of technological development of the most advanced countries at that time.
It’s easy to imagine that the 50 km/h reached by the impressive “Rocket” locomotive from George Stephenson in 1829 represented a true high speed consideration for railways since the beginning.
And very soon railways reached even much more impressive speeds: 100 km/h before 1850, 130 km/h in 1854, and even 200 km/h at the beginning of the 20th Century.
In any case, these were just speed records. The maximum speed in revenue operation was much more modest but nevertheless important, reaching 180 km/h as the top speed and 135 km/h as the average speed between two cities in the 1930s, with steam, electric or diesel power..
But the appearance on stage of other transport modes, aviation (offering more speed) and private cars (offering point to point travels in privacy and forgetting frequency), forced passenger railways to use their best arguments to compete.
After some significant speed records in Europe (Germany, Italy, UK and specially France, 331 km/h in 1955), the world was surprised when, on 1 October 1964, Japanese national railways started the operation of a fully brand new 515 km standard gauge line (1435 mm, apart from conventional lines previously built in Japan, in meter gauge), the Tokaido Shinkansen, from Tokyo Central to Shin Osaka.
This line was built to provide capacity to the new transport system necessary for the impressively rapid growth of the Japanese economy. JNR president Shinji Sogo and Vice President for Engineering Hideo Shima promoted the concept of not only a new line, but a new transport system, called to be extended later to the rest of the country and to become the backbone of passenger transport for the future generations of citizens in Japan.
The Tokaido Shinkansen was designed to operate at 210 km/h (later increased), broad loading gauge, electric motor units powered at 25 kV ac, Automatic Train Control (ATC), Centralised Traffic Control (CTC) and other modern improvements.
High Speed Rail (HSR) was born.
After the big success of the Shinkansen operation, technical progress in several European countries, particularly France, Germany, Italy and UK, developed new technologies and innovations aimed to establish the basis for the "passenger railway of the future".
Despite an unknown future (Concorde, political opposition, 1973 first petroleum crisis, etc.) and even if several other existing or new transport modes intended to compete with the classic railway concept, finally SNCF, the national French railway company, started the operation of the first high speed line between Paris to Lyons on 27 September 1981, at a maximum speed of 260 km/h.
The European HSR was born, but in contrast to the Shinkansen concept, the new European HSR was fully compatible with existing railways and this largely conditioned the further development of the system in the Old Continent.
Once again, after the big success of the TGV, each European country looked for the new generation of competitive long and medium distance passenger rail services, in some cases by developing its new technology and in others by importing.
Joining the group of countries offering high speed rail services in Europe were Italy and Germany in 1988, Spain in 1992, Belgium in 1997, the United Kingdom in 2003 and the Netherlands in 2009.
In the meantime, some similar cases appeared in other countries and regions, such as China in 2003 (even if the big development came later, in 2008), South Korea in 2004, Taiwan Railway High Speed Corporation in 2007 and Turkey in 2009.
A new dimension and a new perspective for HSR started in China on 1 August 2008. The 120 km high speed line between Beijing to Tianjin represents just the first step in a huge development to transform the way of travelling for the most populated country in the world. Since 2008, China has implemented almost 20,000 kilometres of new high speed lines and thanks to an enormous fleet of more than 1 200 train sets, carries 800 million passengers per year (2014 and growing), more than the half of the total high speed traffic in the world.
And following the example led by China, new high speed systems are under development around the world: Morocco, Saudi Arabia, USA, etc.
Accordingly with 2015 expectations, and in spite of the development of other transport modes (for example the Maglev, automatic driving cars, improvements in aviation, etc.), by 2030-2035, the extension of the world HSR network could reach more than 80,000 kilometres, representing an important challenge for operators, industry, authorities, etc.
High speed must be continuously developed and performed in order to continue to be present in passenger transport in the next 50 years (or more).