INTRO: The closing years of the 20th century have seen a consolidation in high-speed train performance. In our biennial survey Dr Colin Taylor finds more trains in the top categories, but no services faster than in 1997. The next leap forward will come with the start of regular operations at 350 km/h

NO CHANGE at the top. It has never happened before since the first of these reviews by the late Donald Steffee was published in 1975. So has the practical limit on rail speeds been reached at last? Probably not, no more than when it was thought that if humans travelled faster than the speed of a horse some calamity would result. There is always an incentive, and railways will not be the exception.

In the next millennium, Spain can be expected to challenge for the top spot, having thrown down the gauntlet by setting a 350 km/h line speed for the Madrid - Barcelona AVE line. France is looking to go to 320 km/h on TGV Nord and TGV Méditerranée, but 350 is still some way off. At present the Japanese have not announced official plans to go above 300 km/h, although Japanese technology is being promoted for the Taipei - Kaohsiung line in Taiwan which is also intended to operate at 350 km/h.

At times consolidation becomes the name of the game, and this above all is what this year’s review has found. Perhaps in the new millennium there will be further extension of the limits: the 1999 survey shows more and more trains on ever-extending routes accelerating into the 120, 160 and 200 km/h range. There are now over 20 countries on the ’Roll of Honour’, and the time has come to raise the entry level. So with effect from the next survey the base limit for Table I will be increased to 150 km/h.

For the time being we welcome Israel (16th place, 126·6 km/h), Switzerland (20th with 123·6 km/h) and belatedly Hungary in 15th place with its 134·3 km/h Eurocity services which were omitted from the 1997 survey (RG 5.99 p274). At the bottom of the table Austria just misses out, in spite of the advent of ICE 90/91 as the new-look Prinz Eugen and two Innsbruck - Wien ICE trains. Several other countries have slipped since 1997, including Germany and Great Britain, although these at least maintain their positions of 5th and 6th in the league.

Nozomi supreme

Japan remains in first place, with no less than 12 Nozomi 500 expresses now covering the 192 km between Kokura and Hiroshima in 44 min compared with only two in 1997. The Tokaido Shinkansen, Japan’s first, has been the scene for the most advanced and sustained developments in the realm of high speed ever since 1965 when the Series 0 sets first wrested the crown from SNCF. Together with the later Sanyo Shinkansen, it has been the testing ground for the Series 700 trainsets (RG 12.97 p847).

Although Japan’s MLX01 maglev train has lifted the world speed record for an experimental vehicle to over 550 km/h (RG 2.98 p84), the overall acceleration and intensification of shinkansen services as the Series 500 and now the Series 700 trains take over many of the Sanyo line schedules is arguably a greater achievement. At the time of writing there are 27 Nozomi expresses running daily between Tokyo and Hakata at a median speed of 218·9 km/h, which is 37 km/h faster than 10 years ago. In addition there are 24 Hikari services covering the whole route at over 170 km/h average.

But it is not only on this route that major accelerations have been recorded. JR East’s Tohoku Shinkansen headed the Japanese entry in 1989 with six Yamabiko trains between Morioka and Sendai at 213·9 km/h. In those days, the Tokyo Ueno - Morioka run took 2h 32min, but now the 3·6 km longer run from Tokyo Central takes 10min less. Between Morioka and Sendai the fastest runs now average 238·7 km/h, an 11·5% improvement which returns this route to Japan’s top five runs.

It should be noted that entries in Table I are restricted to one timing between the same two places. Otherwise the whole of a country’s entries could be between the same origin and destination - TGV Atlantique trains between Massy TGV and St Pierre being an example. Even so, different station pairings on a single route can still fill the quota.

Silver and bronze

In second place, France slips slightly while Thalys trains, taking full advantage of the completed Belgian high-speed line between Antoing and Lembeek, bring International services closer to the top. Not only is this seen between France and Belgium or Germany but between Britain and mainland Europe; London is just over 21/2 h from Brussels (compared to over 3h in 1997). Eurostar comes second in the International list, with train 9055 running from Paris Nord to Ashford at an average of 209 km/h including the slower section through the Channel Tunnel.

Paris - K