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World Speed Survey 2005: France regains rail's blue riband

01 Nov 2005

Running at a start-to-stop average speed of 263·3 km/h, a single TGV between Lyon-St Exupéry and Aix-en-Provence has nudged France to the top in our 2005 world speed survey, overtaking Japan's 261·8 km/h timing between Hiroshima and Kokura

AFTER ALMOST a decade in which train performance appeared relatively constant, France has regained the lead in our latest world speed survey, nudging ahead of Japan by the most slender margin.

Whilst JR West's best performance by Nozomi 501 remains unchanged, a shaving of 4min off the schedule of TGV 6109 between Lyon-St Exupéry and Aix-en-Provence pushes SNCF 1·5 km/h ahead of JR. At these speeds even a minute can count, so these reviews are based as far as possible on timings taken from working timetables and distances measured to two or three decimal places.

Investment in high speed lines and trainsets over the past 25 years has brought a level and consistency of performance almost undreamed of when Railway Gazette published the first of these biennial surveys 30 years ago (RG 7.75 p269). It has been an interesting experience to chart the changing fortunes of different countries in their efforts to climb the table, and to note which railways have capitalised on their investment and which have not.

In 1975, the late Donald Steffee found 10 countries with scheduled trains achieving average start-to-stop speeds between two stations at speeds of more than 120 km/h. This benchmark had been attained by several countries before World War II, starting with Germany's two-car diesel Fliegende Hamburger which was booked to run at 124·7 km/h between Berlin and Hamburg in 1935. After the war, European railways were slow to recover, and the USA led the way for a while with some schedules in the 130 to 140 km/h range.

October 1964 really marked the start of the current high speed era, with the inauguration of Japan's Tokaido Shinkansen. Not surprisingly, the 'bullet trains' led the 1975 survey, with a 169·9 km/h start-to-stop timing between Tokyo and Nagoya. Other countries on the Roll of Honour were, in order, France, USA, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy and Sweden, with an international run between Paris and Brussels ranking equal with Italy.

Two years later, the introduction of 200 km/h diesel HSTs (p707) saw British Rail surge ahead of the North American contenders. The UK remained in the top three until 1991, when it was ousted by Germany following the advent of regular ICE services (RG 9.91 p663).

Japan and France have remained in the top three throughout the 30 years, except in 1981 when Germany temporarily overtook France shortly before the opening of the Paris - Lyon Ligne à Grande Vitesse. TGVs burst onto the scene on September 27 that year, a significant date in railway history (p679). France reigned supreme for over a decade, during which its top performance rose steadily from 185 km/h in 1983 to 250 km/h in 1995. In 1997 this record was surpassed by JR West, whose 261·8 km/h Nozomi dash between Hiroshima and Kokura has headed the table until now.

Until 2001, the benchmark for Table I remained at 120 km/h, and the number of qualifying countries ranged from a low of eight in 1981 to 21 in 1999. Austria and the Netherlands joined the club in 1983 and Belgium in 1985. In 1987 Spain came straight in to sixth place with some excellent Talgo performances, followed by Australia, Finland and Ireland. Poland was a newcomer in 1991, and two years later the advent of the AVE pushed Spain ahead of Germany into third place.

The International category took third place in 1997 with the introduction of Thalys and Eurostar services between France, Belgium and the UK.

Further down the table, Denmark, China, Saudi Arabia and Morocco expanded the Roll of Honour from 15 to 19. As a reader subsequently pointed out, the total should have been 20 that year, with Hungary recording a 134·3 km/h timing between Hegyeshalom and Györ (RG 1.98 p16).

Jostling in Table I

The entries and rankings in Table I this year differ little from those of the 2003 survey, particularly for Japan and Germany. In Spain, the high speed line between Madrid and Lleida is beginning to show results in spite of the reported problems and temporary speed restrictions. AVEs between Madrid and Zaragoza now rival their well established high speed performance on the Sevilla route, while other trains using the new line as far as Plasencia de Jalon (272·3 km) have made a dramatic impact on services to northern cities such as Pamplona, as shown in Table II.

ICE services on the Köln - Frankfurt and Wolfsburg - Berlin Neubaustrecken continue to dominate the German entry. As reported in RG 12.04 p812, the major achievement in the past two years has been the acceleration of Berlin - Hamburg services. ICE-T tilting trains have cut journey time by more than half to just 90min, achieving an average of 190·7 km/h between Berlin Zoo and Hamburg Hbf.

Sweden has improved its position, with its tilting X2000 sets offering a creditable and interesting service between intermediate stations on the routes from Stockholm to Göteborg and Malmö. A 190·6 km/h sprint between Falköping and Katrineholm pushes the UK out of sixth place.

As forecast in 2003, South Korea is the big new arrival, coming straight in at seventh place with the start of commercial service on the 223·6 km KTX high-speed line between Seoul and Taegu. This has cut the end-to-end journey time between Seoul and Pusan from over 4h to 2h 34min for non-stop trains at a creditable 159·7 km/h. On the new line itself, KTX services average speeds of almost 190 km/h over the shorter Seoul - Taejon section.

Britain improves, but drops back

The UK finds itself pushed down into eighth place in Table I. For the British commentary I am indebted to John Heaton, who has taken over following the retirement of Peter Semmens, whose valuable contribution has formed part of these surveys since shortly after my own involvement in 1987. John writes:

'The East Coast Main Line maintains the ascendancy for high speed in the UK, fighting off the new 200 km/h Virgin Pendolino services with some ease. The East Coast still has 18 station-to-station pairings faster than the best timing on the West Coast route. The top spot goes to GNER's 16.30 from London King's Cross, which is booked in the working timetable to cover the 125·3 km between Stevenage and Grantham in 41½ min at an average of 181·1 km/h. The best public timing is 76min for the 222·9 km by GNER's 13.30 King's Cross - Edinburgh to its first stop at Retford.

'However, GNER is under pressure from open-access operator Hull Trains, now part of FirstGroup. The niche company usually has to take the second bite at available paths, even though it now uses 200 km/h Class 222 Pioneer DEMUs. Hull Trains' 13.34 from King's Cross chases GNER's 13.30 flyer all the way to Grantham, covering the 169·5 km in 58min at 175·4 km/h. GNER had a similar public booking over the same section for its 18.30 King's Cross - Bradford Forster Square, which would have edged out the Hull service thanks to its working time of 57½ min, but this ran only on 14 summer Saturdays.

'The 15.00 King's Cross - Glasgow Central (formerly the Scottish Pullman) has an increased performance allowance but still manages 105min for the 303·2 km run to York at 173·3 km/h. The Virgin CrossCountry Voyager timing from York to Darlington that headed the 2003 entry has been decelerated in the interests of performance, just in case a heavier Class 221 set is substituted.

'With aspirations for 225 km/h on the West Coast Main Line now dormant, the best start-to-stop entry that Virgin can offer is 165·5 km/h for the 104·7 km from Rugby to Watford Junction, followed by 164·5 km/h for the 52·1 km sprint between Watford Junction and Milton Keynes. Whilst these are well short of the ECML performance, the advent of the Pendolinos has given Virgin some attractive headline schedules. The best runs between London and Milton Keynes, Nuneaton, Tamworth, Lichfield, Stafford, Warrington and Preston are all above the 150 km/h threshold.

'The greatest gains on the West Coast have fallen to Manchester passengers who benefit from nine Pendolinos to London Euston and eight back that cover the 295·3 km in 133min with two stops at an average of 133·2 km/h. There is also a headline 126min schedule via the longer Wilmslow route achieving 144·7 km/h. Nor has Liverpool been forgotten, with a 129min schedule for the 07.08 to Euston. This averages 154·2 km/h from Runcorn to the capital. The best West Midlands service covers the 168·5 km from Birmingham International to Euston in 70min, averaging 144·4 km/h.

'Great Western continues to disappoint. Britain's first 200 km/h railway is the only route equipped with ATP, but frequency and reliability are afforded higher priority than outright speed. So the timetable features closely-spaced stops and generous allowances, some resulting from congestion. The best HST performance is 146 km/h for a 124·1 km run from Swindon to London Paddington in 51min. Another notable run is the 08.22 Oxford - Paddington, worked by a Class 180 Adelante DMU. This is booked to cover the 57·7 km from Reading in just 24min, at 144·2 km/h. Deducting the 2min recovery allowance would give a net timing of 157·3 km/h.

'There is a brighter story on the sinuous Berks &Hants route from Reading to Taunton and Exeter, where additional semi-fasts have enabled stops to be removed from two Cornish trains, allowing averages of 137·4 and 138·3 km/h respectively. The fastest B&H run is the Saturdays-only 07.00 Plymouth - Paddington Adelante DEMU, which covers the 171·8 km from Taunton to Reading in 73 min at 141·2 km/h.

'The first section of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link has improved Waterloo - Ashford speeds but slow running as far as Fawkham Junction keeps it out of the table. Opening of the second section in 2007 should remedy this situation.' CTRL nevertheless shows its influence in many timings between the UK and France. An especially interesting entry in the International category sees Eurostar 9084 averaging over 200 km/h between Ashford International and Avignon Centre including an operating stop at Marne-la-Vallée.

Opening of the high speed line east from Brussels has brought some improvement between the Belgian capital and K”ln. In Table II, the saving compared to 2003 is only 5min, giving an average of 101·1 km/h including stops at Liège and Aachen. However, Thalys and Eurostar trains still keep the International group in third place in Table I, with the Thalys Soleil averaging more than 240 km/h over the 831·7 km between Brussels and Valence. The overall average of 233·4 km/h between Brussels and Marseilles with two intermediate stops also merits a place in Table II.

A new entry to the 150 km/h club this year is China, where a national rail speed record of 321·5 km/h was established in late 2002 (RG 2.03 p99). Chinese Railways has launched an ambitious programme to develop a network of high speed lines designed for 200 km/h or more. Timetable accelerations have introduced 160 km/h running on several existing inter-city routes, led by a 2h 48min schedule for Fex T71 over the 423 km from Beijing to Qinhuangdao. Also noteworthy is the schedule of Expresses Z15 and Z16 which cover the 1412 km between the capital and Harbin non-stop in 10h 30min at an average of 134·5 km/h.  Most remarkable is the Beijing - Shanghai line, where between 19.00 and 19.28 every day, CR dispatches no less than five non-stop expresses in each direction. Leaving both termini at 7 min intervals, each takes 12h 18min to cover the 1463 km between the two cities at an average of 122·3 km/h.

Table II traditionally covers notable, accelerated or otherwise interesting runs, whether or not they make intermediate stops, and not necessarily covering the entire run from origin to final destination. On this occasion, we have concentrated on runs of recent origin, only repeating trains featured in previous reviews in a few special cases, such as the Thalys Soleil.

Rest of the World revisited

Table III of our 1997 survey looked at the best performance in all other countries of the world, but warned that the task was unlikely to be repeated. With so few changes at the top over the last three surveys, however, it seemed appropriate to present the full world picture once again.

The list is understandably headed by countries formerly in, or close to, the 120 to 150 km/h group eliminated by the raising of the cut-off for Table I. Portugal has long been close to the threshold. Austria, despite setting a new national record of 305 km/h on the Wien - Linz Westbahn last year (RG 10.04 p712), does not show any scheduled runs approaching even half that speed.

Croatia has never previously been noted in the survey, although Yugoslavia very nearly made Table I back in 1989 with a Zagreb - Beograd Rapide at 109·2 km/h. HZ still falls short with a best of 103·2 km/h between Slavonski Brod and Novska. The IC-Nagibni tilting DMUs have improved services to Split, making Croatia's second fastest runs at 96·4 km/h between Zagreb and Karlovac, and cutting almost 2h from the previous 7h 15min end-to-end timing by the Intercity Marjan.

Just as there is minimal change at the top, there is little at the bottom. Most of Nepal still remains without any trains, though Janakpur Railway, a subsidiary of Nepal's Transport Corp, operates trains to and from Jaynagar in Northern India. These take 61min for the 15 km section from the border at Mahinathpura to Janakpurdham, averaging just 14·8 km/h.

As in 1997, information was unavailable or insufficient to produce meaningful entries for Venezuela or Jamaica. In 2005 this also applies in El Salvador, Jordan and Singapore. All passenger services have been abandoned in Togo and Lebanon, whilst those in Guinea and Congo are shown as 'currently suspended'. Uganda has been shown thus since July 1997, although there are reports that some services are in fact operating.

Data now available has allowed Panama, Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Cambodia, Eritrea, Costa Rica and St Kitts & Nevis to join the list. The first-named achieved a respectable 48th place with its Executive Class expresses running alongside the canal, and St Kitts takes last place with a 12·7 km/h run on its circular scenic railway.

Of the rest, many remain in almost the same position as in 1997. Serbia-Montenegro is still in the 66th place formerly occupied by Yugoslavia with the fastest timing between the same places, Lapovo and Jagodina.

The most dramatic change is Kazakhstan, which has jumped from 74th to 33rd place thanks to the introduction of Talgo Pendular sets on the Almaty - Astana route (RG 1.03 p48). These are timetabled to cover the 462 km between Qaraghandy and Sari Shagan at an average of 109·6 km/h. Another notable improvement is Uzbekistan, moving up 29 places to 49th with a 3h 50min run over the 354 km between Samarkand and Toshkent.

Ukraine, Chile and Turkey also improve their position markedly. Turkey would have joined Table I were the cut-off still set at 120 km/h. The Czech Republic, where a Pendolino trainset achieved a national record of 237 km/h in 2004 (RG 1.05 p7) has also bettered its position, from 45th to 29th place, with regular expresses between Breclav and Brno averaging 114·2 km/h and its fastest run on the Ostrava - Brno line between Ostrava Svinov and Prerov at 115·6 km/h.

In many African countries, speeds have been substantially reduced and services curtailed. Zambia, Mali, C“te d'Ivoire, Senegal and Burkina Faso are the most conspicuous losers. Ghana's fastest train was number 302 from Accra to Tarkwa, taking nearly 2h less than the 'express' which followed it on alternate days. But like the express it has been 'temporarily suspended'. The fastest of four remaining Ghanaian services is the 17.30 from Accra, which covers the 31 km between Achimota and Nsawam at 27·4 km/h.

In South America, Brazil falls from 49th to 77th place. There is no need to dwell on the fall in grace of some former Table I contenders. The list says it all.