Spain is rapidly expanding its high-speed rail service, becoming one of most connected countries in the world. As the high- speed rail network grows, Spanish companies continue to innovate and provide new services and products at lower prices to meet the world's growing demand. This is the fourth in an eight-part series highlighting new technologies in Spain and is produced by Technology Review, Inc.' s custom-publishing division in partnership with the Trade Commission of Spain.
The sensation of riding on Spain's high-speed rail from Madrid to Seville is more than anything one of smoothness, without the bumps and jostles common on conventional rail. The journey passes so comfortably, in fact, that it's easy for a rider to forget the speeds at which the train is traveling— unless, of course, the rider happens to stand in the conductor's cabin. From the conductor's vantage point, scenery zips alongside as tunnels loom ahead, then the train quickly plunges into darkness before darting out once again into the light. The speed, the most important trait of high-speed rail, turns from simply a number on paper into something visceral.
Spain has embarked on an ambitious project to develop high-speed rail connections in every major city, spanning out in a web all around the country and connecting the urban dots along the coast. By 2020, the country plans to have 10,000 kilometers of high-speed rail completed, placing 90 percent of the population within only a few dozen kilometers of a high-speed rail line and shooting Spain to the world's top ranks in terms of total high-speed rail on the ground.
In the process, Spanish industry has taken advantage of the country's new focus on high-speed rail to develop new products to meet the demand of Spanish market, and to innovate and compete on the world market for parts and services.
What Is High-Speed Rail?
The history of rail is long and varied around the world, and definitions of "high speeds" have changed dramatically over the years. Railways had a monopoly on passenger travel throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s at speeds that were considered rapid at the time— about 100 kilometers per hour.
After World War II, the United States came to rely on improvements in cars, highways, and air travel, while Europe and Japan focused on rebuilding and improving the railway system. Higher-speed trains were originally imagined in order to win back large numbers of passengers who had been diverted to road and air traffic (reasons similar to those motivating Spain today).
Today, "high speed" trains are generally understood to be those that travel at and above 200 kilometers per hour, or 124 miles per hour. That speed was first reached by a Japanese train, which was officially launched in 1964. France's TGV followed in 1981. Actually, 200 kilometers per hour is now considered relatively slow in the high-speed world: most high-speed trains today travel at 250 to 300 kilometers per hour (150 to 185 miles per hour). Trains are in development that run at 350 kilometers per hour, and on test tracks, trains have reached more than 500 kilometers per hour.
The term "high-speed rail" does not refer to a particular type of train but, rather, simply to the speeds it can attain. Today most high-speed trains are electric, though diesel trains, incorporating newer technology, have been able to reach similar speeds. For instance, the Spanish company Talgo has a diesel train that reached 250 kilometers per hour in testing, though its trains purchased for systems around the world remain electric.