All Aboard: The World's Best Trains

Adem Turgut
5 min readFeb 26, 2023

Speed, Punctualtiy and the Push Toward Autonomy

Introduction

Train travel has been used for centuries to get from point A to point B, and today it remains an important mode of travel for both people and cargo. Trains are one of the most efficient forms of transportation thanks to their ability to carry large numbers of passengers or freight over relatively long distances. With advances in technology, the trains of today are faster, safer, and more energy efficient than ever before. In this article, we will explore the various technologies used to power, move, stop, and make trains more efficient, as well as look at some of the most advanced trains in the world. Finally, we will discuss some efforts to automate train travel fully.

The most efficient form of transport

Trains are one of the most efficient and cost-effective forms of transportation, with the ability to carry large numbers of passengers or freight over relatively long distances. According to the US Department of Energy, Rail is the most energy-efficient form of travel. This is due to high ridership, proportionally low drag, and high electrification rates (electricity is inherently more efficient than combustion-engine propulsion).

Moving A Train

Moving

Diesel engines power nearly all locomotives in the USA. Diesel locomotives use a combustion engine to generate power by igniting diesel fuel through compression, which moves pistons connected to an electric generator. This generator produces electricity that powers motors connected to the wheels.

In urban areas, electric locomotives are sometimes used. Electric locomotives are powered by electricity from overhead lines, a third rail, or onboard energy storage. They are more efficient and quieter than diesel locomotives and cost less to run and maintain. However, the infrastructure needed for electrification is expensive, so US Railroads must be convinced to invest. In contrast, railways in Europe and elsewhere are often state-funded and considered part of the national transport infrastructure.

Maglev trains use superconducting magnets to levitate a train car above a U-shaped concrete guideway and move it forward using magnetic attraction and repulsion. This design offers a smooth and safe ride, and Maglev trains can travel up to 375 miles per hour. The technology is operational in Japan, South Korea, and China and is being explored in the United States.

Stopping

Trains typically stop using either friction or the train’s kinetic energy to brake.

A common method for stopping is air braking. These systems are widely used, particularly for freight trains. Compressed air pushes a piston connected to brake shoes, slowing the train using friction.

Air braking systems have flaws, however. Cars brake individually at the speed that the air can travel from car to car. This can cause significant delays in applying the brakes on long trains (hundreds of cars). Electrical-controlled electro-pneumatic braking (ECP) overcomes this challenge. ECP systems simultaneously apply and release brakes to every car. This is done using a hardwired electronic pathway down the length of the train.

A train can also use the kinetic energy of its turning wheels to create electrical energy. That energy can then apply force to the wheels in the opposite direction. An example of this is the rotary eddy current brake (RECB).

The most advanced trains in the world

Speed

The Shanghai Maglev in China is the fastest commercial train in the world. Linking Shanghai’s Pudong Airport to Longyang Road Station, it has a maximum speed of 460 kph (280 mph) and completes the 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) journey in seven and a half minutes. Constructed for $1.33bn in three years, it was manufactured by a joint venture between Siemens and ThyssenKrupp.

However, the L0 Series maglev in Japan holds the land speed record for trains, reaching 603 kph (375 mph) in 2015 on an experimental track. The TGV POS in France, the fastest non-maglev train, hit a speed record of 575 kph (357 mph) in 2007.

Asia and Europe are home to the world’s fastest trains, while the fastest in North America is the Amtrak Acela, which tops out at 266 kph (165 mph).

Network Quality

Many consider the Japanese rail network the best in the world, servicing 40 million passengers daily. The high-speed Shinkansen is known for its punctuality, with an average delay of less than a minute. The Japanese rail system is also one of the safest in the world, with zero passenger fatalities since the bullet trains started operating in 1964. Trains in Japan are also famous for their cleanliness, with a highly synchronized team of cleaners completing the task in less than 7 minutes.

Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system is highly praised for its impressive performance, with an average of 3.88 million weekly passenger trips. Its on-time performance of 99.9% is far above the global average of 94.7%. Also, the MTR turns a profit, unlike most rail networks. It does this by allowing private developers to construct buildings above its stations. The MTR then receives a portion of those buildings’ sales and rental income.

While nearly all of the world’s most efficient rail networks are in Asia, there are standouts in Europe also. Particularly those with smaller railway systems. The Swiss, for example, has the densest rail network in Europe, with 196 miles of track per 1,000 square miles. The network carries 300 million passengers annually and is fully electrified using clean hydro-power.

Swedish-Swiss company ABB recently completed a pilot project in Melbourne, Australia, that converted the energy generated during train braking into usable energy on the grid. This was accomplished by storing and re-injecting the surplus braking energy into the train’s power supply. This improved the sustainability of the Melbourne train service and enabled adding more trains at lower cost, providing passengers with a smoother ride.

The drive toward autonomous rail

Grade of Automation 4 (GoA4) is the highest level of automation for train operations and involves completely removing any staff from the train. In GoA4, all train operations are handled automatically, including opening and closing of doors, starting and stopping the train, and handling emergencies. The system is self-sufficient and can operate without human input or intervention.

Several European countries operate GoA4 systems, including France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. The new Sydney (Australia) metro will also be a GoA4 system.

Conclusion

In conclusion, train travel has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The most advanced trains of today are faster and more efficient than ever. New technologies such as electro-pneumatic braking, maglev trains, and energy-saving systems are being used to increase the efficiency of train travel. In the future, fully automated trains may be a reality, taking the strain off drivers, reducing delays, and improving the safety and sustainability of train travel.

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Adem Turgut

CEO of SolveXia (Enterprise Process Automation), Writer and Efficiency Enthusiast