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.

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.

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.

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