Train Speed Limits

You may wonder how fast do trains travel?

Like automobiles, trains have speed limits too. In North America, railroad speed limits are specified in miles per hour (MPH), even in Canada where the metric system is generally used.

Speed limits are specified in the employee timetables, and they are also indicated on signs beside the tracks like the one below indicating 40 MPH.

40 MPH Train Speed Limit Sign
40 MPH Train Speed Limit Sign

Train speed limits tend to be higher outside of cities or towns, and reduced in populated areas. They can also be lower over bridges and on sharp curves.

Some trains may be limited to speeds lower than the track speed limit. For example, trains carrying dangerous goods like propane or acid are usually limited in speed. Transport Canada issued a special order in 2020 limiting speeds of “key trains” to a maximum of 50 MPH, or 35 MPH in metropolitan areas.

If track maintenance is being performed, the speed limit is typically reduced in the work area to protect track workers. Railways may also issue “slow orders” for areas that may have minor track defects, or for unusual situations like extreme cold or extreme heat.

How Fast Can a Train Engine Go?

Locomotives have gearing that limits their maximum speed. A typical diesel-electric freight engine has a maximum speed of 60 or 65 MPH, regardless of what the track speed limit is. Most passenger engines, like an F40PH-2, are geared for higher speeds like 103 or 110 MPH.

Obviously, high speed trains like the Thalys, TGV or Shinkansen are capable of higher speeds like 250 or 300 km/hr.

Red trains in Milan's train station

Passenger Train Speed Limits

Sometimes passenger trains are granted a higher speed limit than freight trains over the same route. For example, in one location, Amtrak’s speed limit may be 65 MPH limit, while freight trains are limited to 60 MPH on the same stretch of track. Some freight trains may be designated as “express” trains and use the passenger train speed limit.

Trains going over track speed limit are at a high danger of derailing, such as the Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia in 2015. It was traveling at 106 MPH when it derailed, more than twice the speed limit of 50 MPH at that location.

Freight Train Speed Limits

How fast do freight trains go? The highest priority intermodal trains can clock in at 60 miles per hour or higher. They are often carrying high priority items like mail or packages.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe tried a high priority train, the “Super C”, for mail and express delivery. It was allowed a 79 mph speed limit.

Italian rail operator FS Italiane tried the Mercitalia Fast service in 2018, running on high speed rail tracks using a ETR 500 trainset (normally a passenger train). It averaged 180 km/h (110 MPH) and carried express packages and similar items. It was discontinued in late 2022.

China revealed a freight “bullet train” in December 2020, capable of speeds up to 350 km/h.

The truth is that most shippers don’t want high speed – they want predictability. They want to know that their freight will arrive in X days, on time.

Automated Speed Limits

Some areas of track have systems that can display the current speed limit in the cab of the locomotive.

Automated systems like Positive Train Control are intended to enforce track speed limits and automatically apply the train brakes if a train is traveling over the track speed limit.

Back to Frequently Asked Questions

Leave a Comment