Since many Americans spent part of the last few days traveling home for Thanksgiving on trains, Scientific American chose to mark the occasion with an in-depth report on the future of rail travel. The future looks promising... and fast.
The Obama Administration has pledged to make as much as $13 billion worth of stimulus money available for high speed rail projects, with an aim to bring the US rail system up to par with those in Europe and Asia. Although Amtrak, the US's intercity passenger rail provider, served a record 28.7 million people last year, this number is disproportionately low when compared to other countries, and part of that is how slow most trains are, and how infrequently they run.
This is partially a structural problem - most tracks were never upgraded to meet 1940's-era Federal Railroad Administration standards due to cost concerns, which keeps trains outside the Northeast Corridor operating at under 79 miles per hour. Lowering average speeds still further is the fact that passenger trains are often forced to idle on the tracks for up to an hour while freight traffic is given higher priority and allowed to go ahead.
Since World War II, most of the US's investments in transportation have focused on planes and automobiles, while Europe and Asia have placed their emphasis on trains, which is a big reason for the current disparity. Jalopnik's Sam Smith argued earlier this month for the necessity of high speed trains in the US, and it appears the current administration agrees. President Obama has proposed the creation of "an efficient, high-speed passenger rail network of 100- to 600-mile intercity corridors that connect communities across America." The obvious American model for such a service is the Northeast Corridor's Acela Express, which runs daily between Boston and Washington, DC.
The only high speed train in the United States, the Acela still lags behind its counterparts elsewhere in the world; its maximum speed is only 150 miles per hour and it averages only about half that speed. By contrast, the French TGV averages about 175 miles per hour, and it tops out at a record 357.1 miles per hour. Indeed, even the 13 billion dollars the Obama Administration has pledged is dwarfed by the investments of other countries; the Chinese have already said they will put over 300 billion dollars into expanding their high speed rail network.
The most promising technology for high speed trains — at least if what you care about is the highest possible speed, as I do — is undoubtedly magnetic levitation. The Maglev train that currently connects Shanghai with its Pudong International Airport covers its 18.6 mile distance in just over seven minutes, averaging 160 miles per hour with a top speed of 268 miles per hour, although its average speed would likely be higher if it covered greater distances.
A Japanese Maglev train managed to reach 361 miles per hour in 2003, just edging out the TGV's record. Here's video of the JR-Maglev train operating comfortably at 311 miles per hour or, as they insist on calling it, "500 kilometers per hour." (I know, right? Madness!)
If you feel like going completely crazy, Maglev proponents have claimed the trains could run at nearly 4,000 miles per hour if operated in a vacuum. If that isn't an argument for space trains, I don't know what is. It would only take sixty hours to reach the Moon!