Every day, China’s G17 and G39 trains depart from Beijing station and arrive in Nanjing after reaching top speeds of up to 350 kilometres per hour.

While they may not be aware of it, passengers using these trains are experiencing the fastest scheduled rail services in the world, according to Railway Gazette International.

The journal’s World Speed Survey ranks the average speeds of scheduled services that were in operation between May and June 2019. Included are trains that run from Monday to Friday and average more than 160 km per hour between different end stations – excluding one-off or weekend services.

Life on the fast line

The world’s speediest trains cover the 1,021 km between China’s capital city and Nanjing further south at an average of 317.7 km/h, completing the journey in just 3 hours and 13 minutes.

But China’s quest for high-speed rail journeys doesn’t stop there. Several other services have broken through the 300 km/h barrier – the country’s second-fastest posts similar speeds to the Beijing-Nanjing route.

The world’s fastest train services

Italy takes second spot in the table by the thinnest of margins, displacing France, which previously held the position. Just one train each day makes the journey from Milan to Reggio Emilia, at around half a km/h faster than the French TGV train between Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine.

Although demoted to third place in the top 10, that service still achieves an average speed in excess of 271.8 km/h, while another between Lyon and Aix-en-Provence averages just 0.5 km/h slower.

The performance of engines on the rail networks of Japan, Spain and Taiwan remain relatively unchanged. Trains in these places are running as fast as their existing infrastructure can handle, so average speeds are unlikely to increase substantially from the current 250 km/h.

In Germany, an extensive inter-city rail network uses sections of high-speed lines rather than entire new routes, keeping top speeds below those of other countries. However, the system is due for expansion, with investment on routes east of Stuttgart planned for 2022, and calls for a 300 km/h line linking the cities of Bielefeld and Hanover.

Full steam ahead

Morocco’s new Kenitra to Tangier TGV line opened at the end of 2018 and enters the table as the eighth-fastest service in the world. It’s Africa’s first high-speed rail link and averages 232.7 km/h.

Outside the top 10, Saudi Arabia has opened a high-speed railway connecting the historic cities of Mecca and Medina to the commercial hub of Jeddah. Although designed for trains to run at speeds in excess of 300 km/h, the current start-up phase of the project achieves an average of 174.6 km/h – but there is potential for speeds to rise much higher in the future.

Saudi Arabia is not the only country where trains are getting faster. The 2019 survey shows the world’s railways are outpacing previous years. Including international rail services, 22 countries operate trains that average speeds in excess of 160 km/h.

More and faster rail services are beneficial for the environment, reducing emissions by cutting the amount of car and aeroplane journeys. For example, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) estimates that by 2040 its high-speed rail system will remove 10 million vehicle miles from the state’s roads each day.

Looking forward, while high-speed networks are spreading across China, Europe and countries like Japan, the need for speed seems to be subsiding in the rail networks of many nations.

With the exception of China, average speeds have reached a 250 km/h plateau. Russia, Turkey and South Korea have each built high-speed rail services designed to operate at average speeds of less than 160 km/h.