We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fastest Train Lines in the World

In the spirit of the previous pro-infrastructure article, lets take a look at the best high speed train systems in the world. We'll go by the widely used definition of high speed as at least 200 kph/125 mph. The "best" is determined here by a combination of:

A) Average speed in between terminating points since the faster the distance covered, the more a train system cuts into air industry's profits. This in turn pushes airplane makers to conceptualize cheap travel by hypersonic passenger aircraft which in turn benefits humanity.

B) The distance that the high speed line covers since the longer the line, the bigger the project in terms of resources and parts and the more economies of scale are utilized. A society's commitment to triggering economies of scale for heavy industry shows its determination to improving the welfare of its citizens. Ultimately, going as big as possible with infrastructure projects (see Erie, Panama, Suez Canals and Transcontinental/Trans-Siberian railroads) is not just cheaper but creates mass employment (during transition to post-scarcity mechanization), rapidly stimulates real physical economy, and gives a super boost in wealth creation.

As such, these 3 lines satisfy the criteria for greatness:

1) Wuhan-Guangzhou High Speed Line (China)
(922 kilometers and longest in the world)

Fastest rail line in the world going an average of 194 miles per hour(313 km/h)! Think of the inefficiency and time spent going to/from airports. The waiting to get on the planes and scanned/handled like cattle or being stuck in car traffic interrupted by a maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour. The Wuhan-Guangzhou line uses two trains: CRH2 and CRH3. It opened for business just a couple months ago so you're looking at the cutting edge conventional non-magnetic land transport in the world.

2) Paris/Lyon-Marselle/St Charles TGV High Speed Line (France)
(750 kilometers long)
(Average speed between end points is 250 km/h or 155 mph!)

France hasn't been idle. They have beat the Chinese in test run speed records (even if now recently second place in average speeds for daily use) and seem determined to become European leader in train infrastructure. They are definitely in a good geographically central position to link up Spain's and Germany's growing networks. All their investment in nuclear power (close to 80% of France is nuclear powered) only helped with these energy intensive projects.

3) Shin-Osaka - Hakata Line (Japan)
(554 kilometers long)
(Average speed between end points: 242 kph/150 mph!)

Japan's Nozomi Shinkansen continues to deliver with a respectable third place. Japan was one of the world's earliest innovators in high speed train technology and is now in the process of moving on to large scale MagLev. This society's territory is one of the best networked in the world and yes, the are heavy into nuclear power as only fission today can deliver the power for true citizen comfort and land travel affordability.

Most of the world's homo sapiens have seen trains like these in science fiction movies and it is hard to wrap one's head around the sheer speeds these land rockets bring. It was really mind blowing to find out that some Chinese airlines cut their fares up to 80% to compete with the newest lines. Looking at these heavy industry marvels (operating on just standard rail gauge!) gladdens the heart and shows that macro scale technological and social progress continues at least in some regions of the planet. Japanese and the French are edged out of the top rank for now since Chinese started building their networks later and thus had newer tech in mind and on hand. We can ignore the magnetic levitation trains at the moment because they are still used on relatively short routes from airports and such.

China now has the world's longest high speed train network at 3,300 kilometers of high speed track as a sum of a number of prominent lines. Japan (2,459 km), France (1,700 km), Germany (1,290 km ) and Spain (1,270 km) follow behind. If one looks at populations of these countries however, France dominates with about 38,000 citizens per kilometer of high speed line while China lags far behind with 400,000 citizens per kilometer. France if of course helped in this since it has the highest % of its energy derived from a modern indigenous nuclear power plant system (it is no wonder why neutral Switzerland and France's neighbor was chosen as the site for the world's biggest and most energy intensive supercollider). Nuclear power infrastructure always goes hand in hand with next generation transport systems.

Shockingly, India, Russia, Brazil, and United States do not have any high speed lines at all as one would expect from countries of such geographic and economic size. We can expect a massive wealth outflow from them in the near future as they try to catch up by buying foreign technical help and/or fleets of trains. Of course it is still rather silly to see engineering marvels on dingy normal rail.

It makes a lot more sense for societies that lag in high speed networks to go straight into MagLev and go into it big. Here is a glimpse of the future spanning entire continents (and yes freight train MagLev will make deliveries of heavy industry parts more efficient than ever):

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