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Eurostar lets travelers zip between cities in about as much time as it would take to get to and from the airports themselves. Eurostar maxes out at about 186 mph.
Sick of flying? It's well known in transportation circles that for distances of around 250 miles -- that's the distance from Dallas to Houston, or New York to Boston -- high-speed trains are the best option. From city center to city center, they're faster, more reliable and more environmentally friendly than either flying or driving. That's why European and Asian countries are frantically laying high-speed tracks to connect their population centers.
We'll probably never see those kinds of trains in the United States. Although there are plenty of routes that have been identified as viable for high-speed rail such as Washington-New York-Boston, San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco, Dallas-Houston-Austin and Detroit-Chicago-St. Louis, short-term thinking and incompetence seem to rule the day here in the U.S.
Building high-speed train routes requires a long-term, multi-decade commitment which our current private industry funding structure, with its focus on short-term results, can't provide. And it looks like our government, while offering massive subsidies to keep private airlines afloat, is incompetent to build an alternative: see California's over-budget railway project between Bakersfield and Merced as an example. In theory, that's a high-speed train between Los Angeles and San Francisco; in practice, it's a money hole in the middle of the state.
So let's travel and see how it's done right. These seven train routes have the fastest maximum speeds in the world. They all go somewhere you'd want to go. They're almost all faster than flying, if you count traveling to and from airports and going through security.
Distance & Speed: 809 miles in 4 hours, 48 minutes
China has laid a massive amount of high-speed rail recently, perhaps more than the country needs; the projects have been criticized as make-work to keep the country's economy steaming ahead. Chinese high-speed trains originally ran at up to 217 mph, but they were recently slowed to the international standard of 186 mph for safety reasons. The new Beijing-Shanghai line connects China's two most compelling cities with a brief stop in Nanjing.
Distance & Speed: 189 miles in 1 hour, 45 minutes
Italy has laid several lines at the 186 mph standard; our pick connects two cities famous for art and culture. Italy's other "Eurostar" lines (not to be confused with the Channel Tunnel train, which we'll get to later) run from Turin to Naples, with a slower section between Florence and Rome. The classy "Frecciarosa" trains used on the highest-speed routes have a Ferrari-red nose.
Distance & Speed: 214 miles in 1 hour, 36 minutes
The relatively small island of Taiwan is bisected by a very fast train line, zipping along at the standard 186 mph maximum speed. The train makes half a dozen major cities easy day trips from Taipei.
Distance & Speed: 117 miles in 1 hour, 2 minutes
Germany's fastest train shows why those 186 mph speeds are just maximum speeds. Trains make stops, so the overall speed is a bit slower -- in this case, about 110 miles per hour. Rather than just connecting Cologne with the Frankfurt airport, think of this line as part of Germany's impressive network; it's part of an easy trip to get from the Frankfurt airport to anywhere in eastern Germany, the Netherlands or France.
England to France
Route: London to Paris
Distance & Speed: 307 miles in 2 hours, 15 minutes
Eurostar completely transformed travel between the U.K., France and Belgium. London's airports tend to be either big and complex (Heathrow and Gatwick) or far out of town (Luton and Stansted); ditto for Paris'. Running through a tunnel Napoleon dreamed of, Eurostar lets travelers zip between the cities in about as much time as it would take to get to and from the airports themselves. Eurostar, like many other high-speed trains, maxes out at about 186 mph.
Distance & Speed: 384 miles in 2 hours, 30 minutes
Price: Highly variable pricing
I love this train. One of the fastest in the world at 192 mph, the Madrid-Barcelona run makes two tremendously compelling cities easy day trips from each other. On one end: Gaudi! On the other: the Prado! The new high-speed train also lets you avoid the annoying trip to and from Barcelona's airport, which is poorly connected by public transit to the rest of Barcelona.
Distance & Speed: 443 miles in 3 hours, 10 minutes
Another member of the 190 mph club, the Tohoku Shinkansen heads north from Tokyo through Sendai to Aomori, site of a gigantic summer carnival and where you can change trains for Sapporo. There isn't all that much to see in Aomori if you aren't there for the carnival, but it's a good place to break your journey and stretch your legs on the way to the northern island of Hokkaido.
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