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The ten fastest trains in the world… 1801 to present.

Posted on Feb 8, 2017

Two centuries ago, theRichard Trevithick's 'Puffing Devil' only way to travel on land for the vast majority of the world was by foot, only the fortunate few were able to call upon horse and less again a carriage. For most of us, wherever we wanted to get, however far, we would have had to pull on the boots and walk. This all began to change when a group of pioneering inventors and engineers in the first years of the 19th century began developing steam engines, and by the end of the century, railways criss-crossed the world. To mark some of these innovations, SmartRail World has looked back in the history books and focused on twelve of what have been the fastest trains in the world on their day, from steam, to electric to maglev…

1801: Richard Trevithick, a British inventor and mining engineer developed the first high-pressure steam engine as well as the first full scale working railway steam locomotive in the early 19th century. Trevithick built a full-size steam road locomotive in West Cornwall which he named the ‘Puffing Devil,’ and it is widely recognised as the first demonstration of transportation powered by steam. It successfully carried six passengers to the next nearby village travelling at a speed of 8 km/h (5mph). But as more tests were made Trevithick's locomotive broke down three days later after passing over a gully in the road. The ‘Puffing Devil’ could not maintain sufficient steam pressure for long periods, and would have been of little practical use. In 1803 the inventor designed and built another steam-powered road vehicle called the London Steam Carriage. This became the world's first self-propelled passenger-carrying vehicle and attracted a lot of public and press attention when he drove it that year in London from Holborn to Paddington and back. However, it was uncomfortable for passengers and proved more expensive to run than a horse-drawn carriage; the idea was later abandoned.

1830: George Stephenson was a mechanical engineer who developed Trevithick's initial rail invention further, to deliver the first public inter-city railway. It was the only public vehicle that could transport passengers at a speed of 50 km/h. The Liverpool to Manchester route was the first of its kind to have a signalling system; a fully functioning timetable and to be powered by its own motive power. Not only was it a financial success but it also became essential for the country's trading agreements.

1899: Germany became the next country to deliver a high-speed rail route. A 72 km track between Marienfelde and Zossen was able to achieve speeds of 210.2 km/h but only during trials and this speed was never reached with passengers on-board (so can't be included on our list!). It was electrified by the Prussian state railway, however this train never entered regular service. In fact it wasn’t until 1933 the Germany once again took the lead to produce the next fastest diesel powered Fliegender Hamburger which travelled between Hamburg and Berlin reaching a top commercial speed of 160 km/h.

Zephyr-min.jpg1934: As the Second World War approacNorth America's Zephyr Trainhed, the US produced the next high-speed train called the Zephyr with a top reported speed of 185 km/h. America’s Boston and Maine Railroad was created travelling at speeds of 96.6kmh (60mph). In May 1934, it set a new speed record for travelling between Denver, Colorado and Chicago when it made a 1,633 km journey is just 13 hours and five minutes at an average speed of 77 mph (124 km/h). It operated until its retirement in 1960 and the train is widely regarded as the first successful streamliner on American railroads.

1938: This was an impressive year for rail travel in both Italy and the UK. Italy’s ETR 200 had a commercial speed of 160 km/h but it also broke a new record reaching speeds of 203 km/h. Rivalling this was the UK’s ‘Mallard’ train which also managed to achieve speeds of 202.58 km/h. The Mallard train travelled along the East-Coast mainline which first began operation in 1934. The steam train covered a 632 km route (393 miles) which connected London, Edinburgh and the North of the country. This line is still in operation today and is a vital infrastructural link.  In the early 1960s the steam locomotives were quickly replaced by diesel electrics with the Deltic trains. A fleet of 22 were built to cope with the increasing ridership. Soon after this advancement, the first section of the line was upgraded to allow trains travelling at speeds of 100 mph (160kmh) to use the tracks. As the demand for high-speed trains grew, the Deltic trains were faded out of operation between 1976-1981. The East-Coast was the fastest line in the UK until the first high-speed railway was introduced in 2007.

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1955: Whilst World War II hindered some high-speed rail developments, the 1950s saw record speeds of over 300 km/h by the French National Railway trains CC 7107. This was the first of SNCF’s trains where all the axles were fully motorised. Although the rail speed record has since 1990 been repeatedly broken by high-speed trainsets such as the French TGV and the German InterCity Experimental trains, BB 9004 and CC 7107 retained the locomotive speed record for over 50 years until it was broken on 2 September 2006 by a Siemens Taurus locomotive, which attained 357 km/h on the Nuremberg-Munich high-speed rail line in Germany

1964: After most of the fastest high-speed rail records were taking place in Europe, Japanese national railways then entered the race. Whilst in their early stages they could not exceed the advancements taking place in Europe at the time, the Tokaido Shinkansen would soon become the game changer. The high-speed 'bullet' train connecting Tokyo Central to Shin Osaka was built to improve capacity after the growth of the Japanese economy. It was built not only to improve infrastructural links but to become the most popular mode of public transport for Japan’s future. The Tokaido Shinkansen was designed to operate a commercial service of 210 km/h, broad loading gauge, electric motor units powered at 25 kV ac, Automatic Train Control, Centralised Traffic Control (CTC) and other modern improvements. Fast, but not the fastest at that time! 

1988: West Germany’s Intercity Experimental train reached an impressive 406.9 km/h (253 mph). This record then became the predecessor of all Intercity-Express trains on the Deutsche Bahn. When one of the coaches was used for measurement purposes, the other two were used for demonstration of a modern high-speed train. The power cars weighed 78 tons each and had a maximum output of 3,640 kW. They were mostly based on the early DB Class 120 locomotives.

1993: The Japanese Jōetsu Shinkansen thShinkasen, 500 seriesen developed to reach spectacular speeds of 425.0 km/h (264 mph). Known as STAR21 the 9-car experimental Shinkansen train was first developed in 1992 by the East Japan Railway Company. The name was an acronym for "Superior Train for the Advanced Railway toward the 21st Century." On 30 October 1992, the train recorded a Japanese national speed record of 353.0 km/h (219.3 mph) on the Jōetsu Shinkansen between Urasa and Niigata, surpassing the record previously set by the WIN350 experimental train earlier in the same year. The STAR21 trainset was officially withdrawn on 17 February 1998.

2007: France’s LGV Est travelling at speeds of 574.8 km/h (357 mph) wins the prize for the fastest high-speed train in the world. The Ligne à Grande Vitesse Est européenne - East European High-Speed line, is a French high-speed rail line that connects Vaires-sur-Marne near Paris and Vendenheim, Strasbourg. The line dramatically decreased the travel time for intercity travel as well as around the connecting with Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland. The LGV Est is a segment of the main line for Europe project to connect Paris with Budapest with high-speed rail service. It was built in two phases, the first in 2004 and the second in 2007.

But we must give an honourable mention to the recent maglev trains which are transforming the way that commercial rail operates across the industry:

2017: The ShaShanghai Maglevnghai Maglev wins the prize as the fastest high-speed train in the world. It has a top operational speed of 430km/h and average speed of 251 km/h. The Maglev started commercial operations in 2004. It runs on the 30.5km Shanghai Maglev Line, which is the first commercially operated high-speed magnetic levitation line, running from Longyang Road Station of Metro Line 2 and ending at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The train cost an eye-watering $1.2 billion to build and has been in huge deficit ever since.

Whilst Japan has reiterated its role as the world’s leader in high-speed rail travel in breaking its own rail land-speed record, the maglev train has still not been launched for commerical service. And prospective passengers will have a long wait - until 2027! The maglev train belonging to the Central Japan Railway Company (CJR) hit a speed of 603km/h (375 mph/h) to set a new global benchmark. It is the second time in a week that the CJR’s state-of-the-art train has broken its own record. Having celebrated its 50th birthday last year, the world’s first bullet train, the Shinkansen, marked Japan out as the world leader in rail technology, but the maglev development have placed Japan back into the lead in the global high-speed rail race.


What’s coming up next? Let us know, how fast can trains go? Email emily.odowd@globaltransportforum.com with your thoughts!


Interested in the fastest train in the world? Then like this you might like to read:

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China's high-speed rail hits the 20,000 km mark but financial issues persist.

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$700m California High-Speed Rail contract won by international team.

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About the Author

Emily O'Dowd
Emily O'Dowd
On graduating with a degree in English Literature at Royal Holloway University of London, Emily joined the editorial team. When she isn't writing articles for the website or interviewing experts in th...read more
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