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The first trains probably did not go very much faster than 15 miles per hour. One train, was called "Catch me if you can" and ran on a circular route. People ran after it to try and catch it.
The speed of trains is determined by many things.
- The quality of the railway line, whether it is laid with light rail (60 lbs per yard) or with heavy rail (94 lbs per yard) ... the heavier the rail, the faster the train can go.
- the gradient of the line. Going uphill will slow a train down as there is a limited amount of power available to haul the train
- the rating of the locomotive: many locomotives can be speed limited to ensure they are operated safely and not in a manner which will either damage the locomotive, damage the track or put the passengers at risk through overspeeding. Modern locomotives usually cannot exceed their safe rated speeds.
- the rating of the wagons or carriages. Suburban passenger trains might be limited to 50 mph (80 kph) due the construction of the carriages, the axles, and the maximum amount of vibration permitted to ensure passenger comfort. Modern suburban trains are constructed with a capacity to operate safely at any speed between 80 kph and 230 kph. The operator of the train sets the maxium speed.
- the rating of the freight carriages. Although all modern freight wagons have roller bearings which cause less friction and rolling resistance, and allow for higher speeds, in train forces of a loaded freight train determine the maximum speed, along with coupler breaking points. Freight trains may be speed restricted to 80 kph, 100 kph, or in some cases, with unit-freight-trains, higher speeds may be allowed. Loaded freight trains tend to put forces on the railway track through lateral (side-to-side) motion; most railways and railroads keep the speeds low in order to minimise damage to the track.
High speed trains have dedicated tracks, like the Thalys in France, the HST trains of the United Kingdom, the Russian Velaro trains, the ICE trains in Germany and the Bullet trains in Japan. Where ordinary passenger trains hauled by powerful locomotives might manage 115 - 130 kph, these trains go much, much faster.
The Italian ETR 200 in 1939 was the first high speed service train.
It achieved the world mean speed record in 1939, reaching 203 km/h near Milan
Thalys operate in France, Germany, Switzerland. Their top speed in service is 300 km/h (186 mph) under 25 kV, with two power cars supplying 8,800 kW. When operating under 15 kV AC or 1500 V DC, the power output drops to 3680 kW, insufficient to reach 300 km/h in commercial use.
Image: German ICE Train on Cologne-Frankfurt high-speed rail line.
The third generation of the ICE has a service speed of 330 km/h (205 mph) and has reached speeds up to 363 km/h (226 mph).
High-speed rail in Germany: Inter-city planes are grounded by faster ICE trains
Germany's high-speed rail network has put paid to short-haul flights between several cities. Once, there were hundreds of flights a day transferring tens of thousands of passengers between Berlin and Hamburg, Frankfurt and Cologne, Frankfurt and Stuttgart, Bremen and Cologne. All have been closed down due to cheaper and faster rail travel.
Eighteen years after the introduction of modern high-speed rail to Germany the overwhelming verdict is that the Ice – Inter City Express – and Icec – Intercity Eurocity – have transformed travel around the country and put the rail network on a par with Japan's Shinkasen or France's TGV. Germany's 21,000-mile rail network now boasts about 800 miles of high-speed track, averaging 150 mph.
Lineup of Shinkansen (Bullet) trains in Japan The Japanese Bullet Trains run at speeds up to 300 km/h (186 mph). Test runs have reached 443 km/h (275 mph) for conventional rail in 1996, and up to a world-record 581 km/h (361 mph) for maglev trainsets in 2003