How Fast Does A Train Go? (Explained)


Modern high speed train departs from railway station


One of the most frustrating experiences you can find yourself in is sitting at a railroad crossing waiting for a freight train to finish crossing the road.

Freight trains can span several cars, and if they’re crossing a road, then they’re not going very fast.

You could be sitting at a crossing for 10 minutes or more while waiting for it to finish crossing.

It may make you wonder why it moves so slow and how fast trains can go, anyway.

Here’s what you need to know about train speeds.


How Fast Does A Train Go?

High speed train in motion on the railway station at sunset


Freight trains tend to go anywhere from 25 MPH to 30 MPH.

They can even go as slow as 5 or 10 MPH if there’s something on the tracks ahead.

It also depends on the type of train it is and in what country the train operates.

In America, the fastest train is the Acela Express.

It travels at 150 MPH but it’s capable of 220 MPH.

In Europe, the trains go a little faster.

The French TGV goes at 200 MPH on average but it can reach speeds up to 357.2 MPH.

Asia has the fastest trains.

Their bullet trains can go anywhere from 200 to 275 MPH with passengers on them.

Standard passenger cars in the United States travel anywhere from 100 to 120 MPH, but trains aren’t always able to travel at those speeds due to a few different factors.

Here are some of the factors that influence how fast a train can go.


1. Track Type

Train tracks


One of the most important factors that influence train speed is the type of track that it’s on.

Track infrastructure has to be able to support fast trains.

In the United States, not all tracks have the right infrastructure to support fast-moving trains.

For one, not all of them are electric tracks.

High-speed trains all use electricity to power them and send them flying along the tracks.

If the United States were to make faster trains, then they’d have to completely change out their tracks or build improvements.

While railroads were once a lucrative means of business, it has since stopped being the gold mine that it was.

As such, most railroad companies don’t want to fund the project.

The government doesn’t consider it a pressing matter either.

The system works, so they don’t feel the pressure to change it.

Most of them already have what they need, anyway, with the Acela Express, which takes passengers from Washington, DC to Boston and beyond.

Until a major infrastructure bill passes through the government, the United States will likely continue to have some of the slowest trains in the world.


2. Lack Of Whistle Signs

Railroad crossing


Another factor that can impact the speed of a train is whether the route has whistle signs or not.

Not all areas have whistle signs.

They’re called dark zones because the conductor has to rely on their own senses to determine if they need to use a whistle signal or not.

For example, an area might not have a sign for a crossing.

It’ll be up to the conductor to see the crossing and make the appropriate signal.

When a train passes through a dark zone, they have to go slower.

Since they don’t have signs to notify them about potential hazards or crossings ahead, then they need the crew to look instead.

The crew can look a lot more easily when the train is moving slower.

It also helps ensure that the conductor has enough time to react if something comes up.

Certain parts of the route might have a few dark zones.

This requires the train to go slow multiple times throughout its journey.

They can’t move fast because they have to keep encountering dark zones.

The good news is that it’s easy to get rid of dark zones.

The county or railroad association just has to set aside some funding to make and post whistle signs.

This then helps the conductor know when there’s a crossing ahead or any other impediment.

With more whistle signs, trains can travel at their top speeds.


3. Dedicated Tracks



Another reason European and Asian trains tend to go faster than American trains is that they have dedicated tracks.

Some of their tracks are for passengers while others are for transporting freight.

Having dedicated tracks is useful because it ensures that the passenger trains are able to move on schedule without hindrance.

Sometimes, a freight train will have to move a bit slower than expected.

If a passenger train catches up to it, then the passenger train can no longer travel at a high speed.

If each train had its own dedicated tracks, then they wouldn’t get in the way of each other.

This is something else that the United States could easily do for the most part.

There is the sprawling countryside where they could easily build new railroads.

However, the funding and interest just aren’t there.

There’s also some complexity with the existing railroad lines, especially concerning stations and freight hubs.

A station may need a complete overhaul to support dedicated tracks.

The problem with that is that some railroads are in cities.

It’s impossible to change them because the city is all around it.

Europe and Asia had an easier time making dedicated tracks because they were slower to build railroads than the United States.

This allowed them to build their tracks, stations, and hubs with population growth in mind.

In the United States, the population grew around the railroad instead.

While making dedicated tracks in the countryside is easy, bringing them together in the city is a lot more difficult.

However, if they could make dedicated tracks, then American trains would be able to go a lot faster.


4. Train Tilting Capabilities

High-speed train


Not every train is capable of riding on tracks or routes designed for high speeds.

That’s because the carriage has to be able to tilt to move with the momentum and force of the train.

If the carriages are unable to do so, then they can pull the train right off of the tracks.

Tilting carriages are more expensive than standard carriages because they require more engineering.

Since they cost more, most railroad companies in the United States don’t want to pay for them.

Those in Europe and Asia have carriages that tilt according to momentum and velocity.

This allows them to safely take sharper turns without losing too much speed.

Trains with those carriages can move fast while those without them are stuck going at slower speeds.


5. Freight Or Passenger

London Train Tube station


The type of cargo that the train is carrying also influences its speed.

For example, if the train is only carrying freight, then it’s going to move slower.

That’s because freight trains have several cars connected.

Some even extend to 100 cars and beyond.

Since they have such a long caravan to pull, the train isn’t able to go as fast.

It has to overcome a lot of friction caused by all the cars to move at all.

It’s also dangerous to move at fast speeds with that much cargo.

If the freight train has to stop, then there’s a lot of momentum behind it.

Stopping too fast can cause the cars to run into each other and damage one another.

Some might even squeeze right off of the track.

To avoid that, freight trains tend to move slowly.

Passenger trains, on the other hand, can move a lot faster.

There are usually fewer cars on a passenger train than on a freight train.

People are generally lighter than a bunch of cargo, too, which makes it easier to stop and turn a train.

Finally, most passengers want to travel fast to get to their destinations faster.

As such, depending on whether it’s a freight train or a passenger train, one moves faster than the other.


6. Proximity To Roads And Highways

Train in city in Tokyo with sunset background


A final factor that influences how fast a train can go is the track’s proximity to roads and highways.

If the track is close to a road or highway, then it goes a bit slower than if it’s in the countryside.

If the track takes the train into a city, then it goes even slower.

That’s because there are more hazards around.

When close to a road or highway, there’s a chance that a car might have an accident and end up on the track.

The train has to be able to stop in time to avoid hitting it.

A train can stop faster if it’s already moving slower.

Roads also mean that there are likely going to be crossings.

Trains need to travel slowly over crossings to ensure they don’t hit cars, people, or animals.

If the train passes through a city, then there are even more risks of the tracks having cars or people on them.

A slow-moving train can stop in time before hitting them.

If the track is in the countryside, however, then the only real concern is animals.

This allows the train to move at top speeds without concern.

The area the track passes through can determine how fast the train can move.


Do Railroads Have Speed Limits?

Grand Canyon Railway


When traveling by road or highway, you’re familiar with the use of speed limits.

Since semi-trucks have their own speed limit that they need to obey on the highway, you may wonder if trains are the same.

Trains do actually have speed limits, but they’re different for each class of train.

Here’s a more in-depth look at how class affects a train’s speed limit.


1. Class 1

The most common type of train on the tracks is a Class 1 train.

More than half of the trains on the tracks are Class 1 trains.

Most of those employed by the railroad work in this class.

The Federal Surface Transportation Board categorizes trains based on size.

The size then determines the thresholds of how much revenue a train can carry.

That threshold is what classifies trains in different classes.

A Class 1 train generates $289.4 million or more a year.

That revenue can come from carrying freight, passengers, or both.

That then determines the speed limit the train can travel at in certain conditions.

For example, when passing through a dark territory or dark zone, a Class 1 train that’s carrying freight has a 10 MPH speed limit.

A Class 1 train that’s carrying passengers has a 15 MPH speed limit when passing through dark territory.

Because these trains tend to be the ones most in use and carrying the most, they’re also the ones at most risk.

As such, the trains have to move slower in dark territories or dark zones to ensure they remain on the tracks.


2. Class 2

The Federal Surface Transportation Board classifies trains that generate between $20.5 million and $289.4 million as Class 2 trains.

Like Class 1 trains, that revenue can come from either freight or passengers.

Since these types of trains don’t carry quite as many goods or passengers, they have a different speed limit than Class 1 trains.

The speed limit for a Class 2 train when passing through dark territory is 25 MPH if it’s carrying freight.

If the Class 2 train is carrying passengers through the dark territory, then the speed limit is 30 MPH.

The reason these trains can move a little faster than Class 1 trains is that they don’t have quite as much that they’re pulling.


3. Class 3

Class 3 trains tend to round out the major classes of trains.

There are other classes, but they’re not in as much use as Class 1, 2, and 3 trains.

For a train to receive the Class 3 designation, the train has to generate less than $20.5 million a year.

They’re able to generate that amount by either hauling freight, passengers, or both.

The Association of American Railroads further classifies trains as Class 3 as Local.

They classify Class 2 and 1 trains as Regional as long as they also travel along 350 miles of track.

Otherwise, they’re considered Local.

A Class 3 train has a speed limit of 40 MPH when passing through dark territory and carrying freight.

When they’re carrying passengers through dark territory, the speed limit is 60 MPH.

These trains can move faster because they’re shorter.

They only have a few carriages that they’re pulling, so they’re able to stop faster if they need to.


4. Other Classes

There are several more classifications after Class 3, but the classification system essentially splits hairs when classifying them.

As such, there’s a list of the other classes and their speed limits when carrying freight through dark territory:

  • Class 4: 60 MPH
  • Class 5: 80 MPH
  • Class 6: 110 MPH
  • Class 7: 125 MPH
  • Class 8: 160 MPH
  • Class 9: 220 MPH

If the train is carrying passengers through dark territory, then here are the speed limits for the different classes of trains:

  • Class 4: 80 MPH
  • Class 5: 90 MPH
  • Class 6: 110 MPH
  • Class 7: 125 MPH
  • Class 8: 160 MPH
  • Class 9: 220 MPH

Clearly, the smaller the train is, the faster it’s able to move along the tracks.

Whether it’s carrying freight or passengers also influences the speed limit.


How Fast Do European Passenger Trains Go?

Spanish public railway enterprise Renfe's Talgo 130 series "Alvia"


Although American trains lack speed, that isn’t the case in Europe.

One of the most consistently fast trains is the German Intercity Express or ICE.

It crosses international borders daily to bring passengers across great distances.

Its average speed is 200 MPH.

The ICE train has traveled at 200 MPH since its debut in 1985.

Another fast train is the French TGV.

It broke speed records when it reached a maximum velocity of 357.2 MPH.

However, it only travels at 200 MPH when carrying passengers or freight.



Trains have come a long way since the steam engine.

Thanks to electric tracks and other innovations, trains can move faster than ever.

As more innovations occur, it won’t be long before trains can help passengers and freight travel at incredible speeds.


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