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High Speed Railways:

By Dr M.C. Duffy

From the February 2006 Newsletter.

High speed railway operations are a matter of the 20th C and resulted from deliberate attempts to work a system at speeds very much higher than the maximum speeds attained on conventional railways. This required construction of new lines; segregation of operations; new forms of rolling stock and unorthodox methods of propulsion relying on techniques developed outside the railway industry. Most attempts failed. Many were misconceived. The great success of the segregated high speed railway is a post 1960s phenomenon. Before 1900, the orthodox steam railway sufficed. It was without rivals for fast, long-distance travel. It possessed considerable development potential without departing from its basic form. Engineering endeavour was rewarded by better integrating the components of a proven system, improving performance, reducing costs and raising safety standards. Most trains were not express trains. In the 1890s the crack express trains might reach 90 mph for short periods, but sustained working at 60 mph was considered adequate. A first class railway could be proud of its mile-a-minute express timetables, start-to-stop. It was a wiser objective to increase the number of express trains averaging 60 mph, and briefly touching maxima of 90 mph, than to seek ways of running at speeds far in excess of 90 or 100 mph. In the years 1900-1914, a few very fast trains were run by a few companies in Europe and the USA, using conventional rolling stock which may have exceeded 100 mph during unscheduled attempts at a record. These were not authenticated and remain doubtful. Scheduled running in excess of 100 mph tested contemporary technology and made little economic sense.

Some experiments were made to see how fast trains could run in the closing years of the 19th C. There were various schemes for constructing completely new railways, powered by electricity, and intended to run streamlined expresses at speeds well in excess of 120 or 150 mph. Many of these schemes were fraudulent with a main aim of robbing unwise investors of their money. Few made engineering sense. One early project displaying engineering skill if not economic acumen was due to Weems, an American dentist who built a narrow gauge electric railway in 1889 to attract funds for a full sized system. A model car of some 2 m length reached 120 mph or 192 kph. It was driven by electricity picked up from overhead wires with return through the rails. In some quarters the steam-electric locomotives of Heilmann, built in the 1890s, were seen as potential motive power units for high speed railways despite their intended role in the electrification of ordinary railways. Radically different systems, intended to replace steam railways, were proposed by competent engineers driven by a utopian vision of rapid communication fostering universal brotherhood. C. Kearneys system is in this category. The Coanda cable-guided plane and the Bennie railplane failed technically. The Langen suspended monorail was of limited use. None of the proposed alternatives was particularly fast.

Serious, scientific engineering research into very high speed railways began with investigations in Germany by Siemens & Halske. and AEG between 1899 and 1903. These trials demonstrated the potential of electric traction in sustained running at speeds no steam locomotive could match. The trials had state backing and took place on a military railway between Marienfeld and Zossen, near Berlin. Three vehicles were tried, one locomotive not intended for high speed working, and two motorized carriages which were to set long-standing records. The vehicles were fitted with three-phase motors, with 10kV supply picked up by a triple collector from three overhead contact wires. Speed was controlled by varying the speed of the steam engine driving the alternator according to signals telegraphed from the cars to the power house, which varied frequency: either 25Hz or 50Hz. Speeds of the order of 130 mph were reached by both cars. At attempt to match this performance in 1904 by a specially constructed 4-4-4 steam locomotive failed, though the design, by Kuhn, was to influence later German attempts to work steam railways at very high speeds. There was no compelling demand between 1900 and 1950 for very fast express passenger trains able to run above the maxima set by existing engineering limits and the need to work many kinds of train, at very different speeds, over a common system. The years of war, economic difficulty, political uncertainty, post-war reconstruction of basic industries and reorganization of many national railways, were not favourable to high speed railways. The emphasis was on improving, or making do, with what existed. Some extremely valuable research into fast running and vehicle design was done by Kruckenberg in Germany In Europe and the USA improved regular services between major cities were provided by short, lightweight trains powered by internal-combustion engines. The Zephyrs in the USA, and the Flying Hamburger and similar trains in Germany and the Netherlands are examples. For high speed working of heavy trains over several hundred km only steam traction was available in the 1930s. The Chicago North Westerns Hiawatha trains, or the British LMS Coronation Scot and LNER Coronation and Silver Jubilee show steam traction at a peak which would be difficult to surpass. These services severely taxed existing signalling and made the pathing of slower trains difficult. Record breaking runs with steam locomotives, like the LNER Mallard which reached 126 mph, questioned the wisdom of trying to work trains by steam at sustained speeds of over 100 mph. During the 1939-45 war, a detailed study of high speed railways was undertaken by the German state in the years when it was confident of victory. Plans were made for a network of 250 kph services throughout the Greater German Reich and its conquered territories, some using improved standard gauge routes, and others using a proposed broad gauge system promoted by Hitler. Very thorough studies were completed. The broad gauge project continued until halted by defeat in 1945. Many modes of traction were considered. Electric traction was not favoured. The standard gauge designs reviewed by Gunther included developments of the orthodox steam locomotive; steam-electric traction; gas-turbine-electric traction; high speed steam motors and various internal-combustion engines with electric, hydraulic and mechanical transmission. The most favoured design, from Lubeck Technical University, was made up of two 4-8-4 five-cylinder compound-expansion locomotives, placed back-to-back with a condensing tender between. The general disposition owed something to Kuhns earlier design. The design of each locomotive was derived from Chapelons Sorbonne proposal. None of the designs was realized, though one of them was based on the General Electric Steamotive which was tried in the USA in the late 1930s. Even more gigantic locomotives were designed for the broad-gauge project.

In 1939, the railway speed record was 230.2 kph (143 mph) set up between Ludwigslust and Wittenberge, Germany, in June 1931 by the propeller-driven Kruckenberg Rail Zeppelin.  The record stood until February 1954.  The Kruckenberg Car was an experimental vehicle, to test vehicle behaviour at high speeds, and had a steerable axle controlled from the cab.  In the 1930s the speed record for steam traction was 161 kph (100 mph) set in November 1934 by 4-6-2 engine 4472 on the LNER between Grantham and Peterborough, England.  This was raised in March 1935 to 173.8 kph (108 mph) over the same route.  A speed of 181 kph (112.5 mph) was equalled by Milwaukee Road 4-4-2 and LNER 4-6-2 in 1935, and LMS 4-6-2 in 1937.  In May 1936 German 4-6-4 O5.002 reached 200.4 kph (124.5 mph) at Neustadt an der Dosse, and in July 1938 the record for steam traction was set at 202.8 kph (126 mph) on the LNER between Grantham and Peterborough by an A4 4-6-2 engine.  These records were less than the speed gained by electric traction in 1903 (Marienfelde-Zossen).  They were surpassed by the diesel record of 181 kph (112.5 mph) set by the Pioneer Zephyr in the USA in May 1934; by 205 kph (127.4 mph) reached by the Leipzig railcar between Ludwigslust and Wittenberge in February 1936.  In June 1939, a Kruckenberg diesel set reached 215 kph (133.6 mph) between Hamburg and Berlin.  Very high speed running then ceased during the war, and in the long recovery period afterwards.  When research into high speed railway operations were resumed in 1954, the initiative was largely with electric traction.

In the mid-1950s, the industrial economies had recovered sufficiently from the war to make use of airlines and motor transport on an increased scale. Railways needed to increase speed of services to win back passengers from airlines and motorways for journeys between 400 and 600 km.  It was necessary to determine how fast trains could be operated over existing routes within the standard loading gauge.  A separate issue concerned the forms guided land transport might take.  There were three general strategies: to run trains over existing railways at much higher speeds; to build new high speed railways, of conventional form, reserved for trains to run at very high speeds unhindered by slower operations; and to seek a completely new form of guided high speed transport. The former strategy was pursued by British Rail via its Advanced Passenger Train project.  This was a new, tilting electric train designed to take curves at higher than normal speeds, and to run at maxima well above conventional train speeds faster than the High Speed (Diesel) Train introduced in the 1970s.  This concept was used in the Spanish Talgo trains since the 1950s. This concept enabled the existing infrastructure to be used, but created difficulties in pathing trains at lower speeds. Improved signalling and control made the project feasible.  Tilting vehicles were required to preserve passenger comfort through curves taken at high speed. Gas-turbine power was used during the experimental stage, but electric traction was chosen for production units.  Unfortunately the project failed for non-technical reasons (Williams).  The strategy of building segregated high speed routes (Lignes a Grande Vitesse: LGV) was pioneered by the French and Japanese, and taken up by other nations. Standard gauge was the norm, so these lines could be linked into the existing network in most instances, and the trains (TGV) could run over old and new lines, and use city stations.  On segregated routes, trains ran through curves at a set speed, so the rails could be superelevated to eliminate passenger discomfort.  Tilting coaches were unecessary and design was simplified.  Segregated lines were the best means of getting high speed rail services, but were extremely expensive and required state aid.  Availability of funds sets the limits to the extent of the network.   The third strategy, to build completely new kinds of guided land transport systems, has not been successful despite experiments with many different forms, none of which (with the possible exception of Maglev) approached the performance of the conventional TGV.  Their proposers failed to anticipate the services offered on the electric LGV.  The British Guided or Tracked Hovercraft, the French jetrain, and the present-day German and French Maglev projects are the best known examples.  Only Maglev is being pursued with serious commitment and full-scale test facilities, in Japan.

1954 was the year when research into very high speed running was resumed after the war.  In February 1954 the SNCF ran locomotive hauled carriages on the 1500V DC Paris-Lyons main line. Locomotive CC 7121 reached 243 kph (151 mph) with a three coach train between Dijon and Beaune, thereby breaking all previous speed records.  The rolling stock was relatively unmodified.  In 1955 further SNCF speed trails were held on the electrified Bordeaux-Hendaye main line, with modified rolling stock and supply system.  Mobile substations increased supply voltage from 1500 to 1900V DC.  In March 1955,  locomotive CC7107 reached 326 kph , and BB9004 set a new record of 331 kph which lasted until 1981 when the SNCF TGV reached 371 kph.  The tests showed that a great deal had to be done to improve pantograph-catenary and vehicle-rail interactions, and to reduce aerial disturbance which raised dust, disturbed ballast, and generated noise.  Research was begun in several countries to achieve these goals and work wheel-on-rail systems at increased speeds.  The Japanese Shinkansen system originated in plans for a new electric railway between Tokyo and Osaka to provide greatly increased passenger-carrying capacity when the existing narrow-gauge link could no longer cope.  A high-speed segregated line was opened in 1964 to provide a start to stop average of 161 kph (100 mph).  Plans to work goods trains by night were abandoned.  Short night-time periods were used for repairs; the rest was needed for passenger working. Success of the first line led to construction of the Shinkansen network , which stimulated similar high speed railways elsewhere. The Japanese used lightweight sets with motors distributed throughout the train. Though successful, these networks were opposed on economic and environmental grounds. They required expensive noise suppression screens and embankments. State subsidies were essential.    The French trials of 1954-55 resulted in the first regular passenger services in Europe to run at 200 kph (125 mph) begun in 1967 by the Capitole express between Paris and Toulouse.  These first trains used locomotive haulage, and ran over ordinary railways, with improved signalling, control and communications.  In the 1970s these SNCF services were faster than any outside Japan.  The need to reduce axle loading called in question the use of locomotives on LGV, but both locomotives and lightweight sets have found use.  To reduce axle loading, and to provide very fast services on non-electrified routes, the SNCF tested gas-turbine powered sets with hydro-mechanical transmission.  In 1969, a five car set was built with three trailers between two outer gas-turbine power cars, containing traction alternators.  The train was articulated, with traction motors on each axle. Eventually power to weight ratio was raised to 23.3 kW per tonne. Tests began in April 1972 and in December a speed of 318 kph (198 mph) was reached. During four years running, this unit reached 250 kph (155 mph) over 1000 times. Features now common on high-speed rolling stock were developed during these trials.  The French plans to use  such trains over existing railways met with pathing problems, and eventually a network of segregated LGV was constructed.   Changes in relative fuel costs prompted a switch to electric traction, using the new international standard of 25kV, 50Hz.  Some TGV could also run under the 1500V DC of older lines.  The  French LGV, like the Japanese,  employed cab-signalling and there were no lineside signals apart from marker boards at the start of each block.  Signal blocks were indicated for five blocks ahead.

In Great Britain a different philosophy was pursued because new, segregated lines were ruled out on grounds of excessive costs and disruption to built-up areas. The High Speed Train was developed in the late 1960s to provide services at 200 kph (125 mph) over improved existing  lines using two diesel electric power units at the end of  a rake of coaches.  This proved most successful.  To provide much higher speeds, of 250 kph (155 mph) and above, the Advanced Passenger Train was developed drawing on research into vehicle-rail interaction begun at the Railway Technical Centre, Derby, in 1964 to resolve problems related to high speed goods operations.  Such research showed that wheel-on-rail systems could provide at least 320 or even 400 kph. The present record is 515 kph held by a French TGV.  Because of this, British Railways Board rejected projects for unusual schemes and launched the Advanced Passenger Train programme in 1968.  The project received very little funding compared to that allocated by the French and Japanese states to the LGV and Shinkansen.  The engineers story is related by Williams (1985).  Special R&D facilities were set up in Derby and a disused line converted into a test route.  Members were recruited to the design team from outside the railway industry.  The APT (Experimental) unit was completed in 1972 and used to test the tilt mechanism, bogies, suspensions and train-track interaction. Authority  for three prototypes was given in 1974.  An electric and gas-turbine powered version were considered.  However, the final test run was made in April 1976 and the project was terminated.  Succeeding operations were left to the HST, and a new generation of conventional electric locomotives able to run at 225 kph. Tilting trains have been used in Scandanavia Italy, Switzerland, Norway and Japan to reduce journey time over routes with heavy curves, but most TGV at work in many lands are non-tilting.   The success of the Japanese and French TGV led to similar trains, working over routes partially or largely segregated, in Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain and South Korea.  The cross-Channel Eurostar trains are an example. The TGV associated with France and Germany   have been used to advance the international business interests of the railway engineering industries of these countries, though globalization is reducing such national identification. In the United States the primacy given to air transport for moderate to long distances, and the reliance on motorcars for much else, discourages construction of LGV on the European scale. Over the last 6 years the USA has introduced TGV, based on European practice, for service in the North-East Corridor. These are tilting trains, and provide 240 kph between Washington, New York and Boston. The future of LGV is uncertain, granted their great expense, and the success of airlines in meeting competition over distances between 200 and 600km. The TGV work best between large centres of population where total journey times are about 3 or 4 hours maximum, and time is important. For longer journeys, airlines become serious competitors: for shorter journeys the motor car on motorways enjoys the advantage.

If you have enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in the following articles by the same author:

Diesel traction

Dr M.C. Duffy's history of diesel traction on the railways from the turn-of the last century to the present day.

The Worldwide development of steam locomotives in the 20th Century from the 1900s to the present day


The Worldwide development of electric locomotives in the 20th Century from the 1900s to the present day


Dr M.C. Duffy's history of Railway Mechanics to examine the mechanical properties and behaviour of railway systems

Steam Locos Electric Locos Railway Mechanics