There is no precise definition of inter-city rail; its meaning may vary from country to country. Most broadly, it can include any rail services that are neither short-distance commuter rail trains within one city area, nor slow regional rail trains calling at all stations and covering local journeys only. Most typically, an inter-city train is an express train with limited stops and comfortable carriages to serve long-distance travel.
Inter-city rail sometimes provides international services. This is most prevalent in Europe, due to the close proximity of its 50 countries in a 10,180,000 square kilometre (3,930,000 sq mi) area. Eurostar and EuroCity are examples of this. In many European countries the word "InterCity" or "Inter-City" is an official brand name for a network of regular-interval, relatively long-distance train services that meet certain criteria of speed and comfort. This use of the term appeared in the United Kingdom in the 1960s and has been widely imitated.
The speeds of inter-city rail lines are quite diverse, ranging from 50 km/h (31 mph) in a mountainous area or on undeveloped tracks to 200-350 km/h (124-217 mph) on newly constructed or improved tracks. As a result, Inter-city rail may or may not fall into the category of higher-speed rail or high-speed rail. Ideally, the average speed of inter-city rail service would be faster than 100 km/h (62 mph) in order to be competitive with car, bus and other methods of transport.
The distance of an inter-city rail journey is usually at least 50-100 km (30-60 mi), although in many large metropolitan areas commuter and regional services cover equal or longer distances.
A distance of 100-500 km (60-300 mi) is a common journey distance for inter-city rail in many countries. In many cases, railway travel is most competitive at about two to three hours journey time. Inter-city rail can often compete with highways and short-haul air travel for journeys of this distance.
In journeys of 500-1,000 km (300-600 mi), the role of inter-city rail is often replaced by faster air travel. Development of high-speed rail in some countries increases the share of railway for such longer-distance journeys. The Paris-Marseille TGV (750 km or 466 mi, or 3 hours) and Tokyo-Aomori Shinkansen (675 km or 419 mi, or 2 hours 59 minutes) are examples of this type of journey. In conventional non high-speed rail, overnight trains are common for this distance.
In some countries with a dense rail network, large territory, or less air and car transport, such as China, India, and Russia, overnight long-distance train services are provided and used practically.
In many other countries, such long-distance rail journey has been replaced by air travel except for tourism or hobbyist purposes, luxury train journeys, or significant cost benefit. Amtrak long-distance services in the United States, and the Indian Pacific in Australia are examples.
Faster high-speed rail of 350 km (220 mi), such as the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway in China (1,300 km or 810 mi, or 5 hours) and Tokyo-Sapporo in the proposed Hokkaido Shinkansen in Japan (1,030 km or 640 mi, or 4 hours), may play a significant role in long-distance travel in the future.
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Railways in Africa are still developing or not practically used for passenger purposes in many countries, but the following countries have inter-city services between major cities:
Trains run by China Railway link almost every town and city in the People's Republic of China mainland, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Xi'an, as well as onwards from Shenzhen across the border to Kowloon, Hong Kong. New high-speed lines from 200-350 km/h (124-217 mph) operation are constructed, and many conventional lines are also upgraded to 200 km/h (124 mph) operation. Currently there are seven High-Speed Inter-City lines in China, with up to 21 planned. They are operated independently from the often parallel High-Speed-Rail-Lines.
Japan has six main regional passenger railway companies, known collectively as Japan Railways Group or simply as JR. Four JR companies operate the "bullet trains" on very fast and frequent Shinkansen lines that link all the larger cities, including Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka and many more.
Many other cities are covered by a network of JR's "limited express" inter-city trains on , narrow gauge, lines. Major cities are covered by convenient train services of every one hour or more frequent. In addition to the JR Group, Japan has several major regional carriers such as the Kintetsu and Nagoya Railroads.
Inter-city railway services crossing the Hong Kong-China border (often known as through trains) are jointly operated by Hong Kong's MTR Corporation Limited and the Ministry of Railways of the People's Republic of China. Currently, Hung Hom station is the only station in the territory where passengers can catch these cross-border trains. Passengers are required to go through immigration and customs inspections of Hong Kong before boarding a cross-border train or alighting from such a train. There are currently three cross-border train services on the conventional line:
A new border-crossing service, the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, has been approved and has been granted HKD 6.6 billion in funding by the Legislative Council's Finance Committee. The line has been opened in 2018 with a new station West Kowloon Terminus in the city centre.
Taiwan Island's coastline is connected by frequent inter-city train services by Taiwan Railway Administration. Taiwan High Speed Rail, opened in 2007, covers the most populated west-coast corridor. Chinese:?
There are Chu-kuang express () and Tze-chiang limited express ().
Almost every major town and city in South Korea is linked by railway, run by Korail. ITX-Saemaeul is operated in most Main railway lines like Japanese limited express or German Intercity. Also, Mugunghwa-ho is the most common and most popular type of intercity rail travel like German Regional-Express. In addition, Seoul and Busan are linked by a high-speed train line known as KTX, which was built using French TGV technology.
Indian inter-city trains are run by Indian Railways. With 63,000 km (39,146 mi) of rail routes and 6,800 stations, the railway network in India is the third-largest in the world (after Russia and China) and the largest in the world in terms of passenger kilometres. Shatabdi Express, Jan Shatabdi Express, Rajdhani Express and Duronto Express are the fastest Inter-city services in India of which the Bhopal Shatabdi Express is the fastest train of India. All long-distance journeys generally require a reservation and unreserved travel is allowed in some trains.
In Indonesia, PT Kereta Api operates inter-city services in many cities, especially in Java. Inter-city serves some of Indonesia's major cities like Jakarta, Bandung, Semarang, Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Surabaya, Medan, Padang, and Palembang. In Jakarta metropolitan area (or Jabodetabek), KRL Jabotabek operates the inter-city and commuter.
Keretapi Tanah Melayu (Malayan Railways) operates loco-hauled express trains called KTM Intercity along Peninsular Malaysia and into Singapore. At the Malaysia–Thailand border, connections to State Railway of Thailand trains are available. KTM Intercity trains are diesel-powered and run on a single-track () system. The rail track is gradually being duplicated and electrified. On the completed Central to Northern section (border), KTM runs the higher-speed Electric Train Service (ETS).
As of February 2020, the Philippine National Railways does not have a regular inter-city rail service although the agency is planning on rebuilding new railway lines. Until the 2000s, PNR had two inter-city rail services: the Bicol Express and the Mayon Limited. The Bicol Express leaves Manila and passes through cities of Manila, Pasay, and Muntinlupa, along with the provinces of Laguna, Quezon, and Camarines Sur before arriving at Naga City. The trip clocks 10 hours or 600 minutes. The Mayon Limited connects Minola and Ligao in 10 and a half hours.
Israel Railways operates inter-city services between all the four major metropolitan areas of Israel: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Be'er Sheva and Haifa. However, due to the small geography of Israel, most of the railway services have a more suburban service pattern, with many short stops at stations between the major city centres.
In Europe, many long-distance inter-city trains are operated under the InterCity (often simply IC) brand. InterCity (or, initially, "Inter-City" with a hyphen) was first conceived as a brand name by British Rail for the launch of its electrification of the major part of the West Coast Main Line in 1966, which brought new express services between London and the major cities of Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool. It later became the name of one of British Rail's new business sectors in the 1980s and was used to describe the whole network of main-line passenger routes in Great Britain, but it went out of official use following privatisation. The introduction of the British Rail Class 43 (HST) helped InterCity become an iconic brand in the 1970s.
The principal network of international express trains in continental Europe is called EuroCity, even though some IC trains also cross borders.
High-speed railways have relatively few stops. The German high-speed train service was named InterCityExpress, indicating its evolution from older InterCity trains. Other high-speed lines include the TGV (France), AVE (Spain), Treno Alta Velocità (Italy), Eurostar (United Kingdom-France and Belgium), Thalys (Netherlands-Belgium-Germany and France) and Railjet (Germany-Austria-Czechia/Hungary).
In Great Britain, the inter-city rail links are now operated by a number of private companies as well as Continental State owned railways such as Avanti West Coast, LNER, East Midlands Railway, CrossCountry, TransPennine Express, and First Great Western. Ireland's inter-city rail network is maintained by Iarnród Éireann and Northern Ireland's is run by Northern Ireland Railways.
The Polish State Railways (PKP), a state-owned corporate group, is the main provider of railway services. The PKP group holds an almost unrivaled monopoly over rail services in Poland as it is both supported and partly funded by the national government.
As of 2018, foreign services operate on the Polish Railways network. These include EuroCity and EuroNight trains operating between Western and Eastern European destinations, most notably the EN 440/441 from Berlin via Warsaw to Moscow operated by Talgo train of Russian Railways company.
Russia has a dense network of long-distance railways all over its vast territory, the longest and most famous being the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. Long-distance train routes of more than 1,000 or 2,000 km (621 or 1,243 mi) are common, with many trips taking two or three days. Speed is relatively low: trains average 60 or 70 km/h (37 or 43 mph).
Canadian inter-city trains are mostly run by Via Rail, a Canadian crown corporation mandated to operate inter-city passenger rail service in Canada. The majority of its services connect major cities in the most populous part of the country known as the Quebec City - Windsor Corridor, straddling the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It also operates long-distance trains to western Canada and the Maritimes on the Canadian and Ocean lines, as well as smaller trains to remote areas of the country.
International trains, run jointly by Amtrak and Via Rail, connect New York City with Toronto. Amtrak also operates the Adirondack between New York City and Montreal, and the Amtrak Cascades service linking Vancouver and Seattle. In addition, the White Pass and Yukon Route links Skagway and Whitehorse on an isolated northern route.
Other inter-city passenger rail operators include the Ontario Northland Railway, which operates passenger services between Cochrane and Moosonee in rural northern Ontario and luxury train operators such as the Royal Canadian Pacific and Rocky Mountaineer which operate rail tours in western Canada.
The Mexican federal government discontinued almost all scheduled inter-city passenger trains in January 2000. Ferromex operates trains on three routes: Chihuahua to Los Mochis, Torreon to Felipe Pescador, and Guadalajara to Amatitan. The President Enrique Peña Nieto has proposed intercity trains, the proposed projects are Mexico City-Toluca (construction began July 7, 2014), the Peninsular train (Yucatán-Mayan Riviera), Mexico-Querétaro high-speed train (with future expansion to Guadalajara) and Puebla-Tlaxcala-Mexico City.
There was a dense system of inter-city railways in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the decline of passenger railroads in North America in the 1960s, the inter-city lines decreased greatly and today the national system is far less dense. The most heavily used routes with the greatest ridership and schedule frequencies are in the Northeastern United States, on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. About one in every three users of mass transit in the United States and two-thirds of the nation's rail riders live in New York City. The two busiest passenger rail stations in the United States are Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal, both in Manhattan, New York City. Passenger rail outside the Northeast, Northwest, California and the Chicago metropolitan area is infrequent and rarely used relative to networks in Europe and Japan.
Passenger lines in most of the United States are operated by the quasi-public corporation Amtrak. The separate Alaska Railroad (also government-owned) runs passenger trains in Alaska, and the privately owned Brightline rail service operates in Florida. The California High-Speed Rail system began construction in 2015 and aims to connect major job centers in California.
Multiple new rail corridors have been identified for private development throughout the country. These include the Brightline West corridor from Las Vegas to Victor Valley, California, the Texas Central Railway between Dallas and Houston in Texas, as well as others.
In Australia, the national interstate network operated by Journey Beyond connects all mainland Australian capital cities except Canberra. However, it is catered towards the luxury tourism market. NSW TrainLink operates interstate services from Sydney to Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane. Intrastate inter-city trains that traverse shorter distances are operated by V/Line, NSW TrainLink, Queensland Rail and Transwa. Many of Australia's inter-city trains are not true inter-city services, given their leisurely average speed and primary role to transport people between regional areas and the nearest capital city or for the tourist market. As a result, Australian networks refer to these services as "country" or "regional" trains. The fastest intercity trains in regular service are the Queensland Rail Tilt Train, NSW TrainLink XPT, V/Line VLocity and Transwa WDA/WDB/WDC class, all of which have a top service speed of 160 km/h.
In Australia, electrified interurban commuter railway systems are used to connect urban areas separated by long distances and use heavy-rail equipment:
On these systems, services either run as limited-stop expresses in the suburban area (e.g. Blue Mountains services) or as shuttles terminating where the suburban lines end (e.g. Rosewood services).
A large-scale non-electric project of four regional lines (Regional Fast Rail) is operational in Victoria. Current interurban and intercity journeys outside the suburban area are often locomotive-hauled (particularly for longer-distance services), due to Victoria's lack of electrification outside of Melbourne.
In New Zealand, there are currently three long-distance passenger services classed as inter-city: the Coastal Pacific, the Northern Explorer and the TranzAlpine. Their slow average speed is limited by the narrow Cape gauge and the rugged country traversed, particularly in the middle of the North Island, where the North Island Main Trunk has many sharp curves and steep gradients.
Other current commuter passenger services include the Capital Connection and the Wairarapa Connection. A network of regional and long-distance rail passenger services up till the mid-twentieth century has largely been replaced by air or bus services. In early 2021, the Te Huia train is scheduled to commence operations, as part of a broader trial to introduce more inter-city trains in New Zealand.
A few countries of South America were once interconnected by international train services, but today they are almost non-existent. Most governments in the continent have favoured roads and automobile transportation since the mid-20th century.
Argentina has inter-city services on a number of routes, run by Ferrobaires, Ferrocentral, and Trenes Especiales Argentinos. Trains in Argentina are experiencing a revival, since the government intends to re-establish long-distance passenger trains between major cities.
Inter-city train services in Bolivia are operated by two train companies: Eastern and Western. The western network runs daily trains from Oruro to Tupiza, with both espresso (fast) and WaraWara (slow) trains. The eastern rail hub is Santa Cruz de la Sierra, with connections to Puerto Suárez and Villamontes, and international lines to Brazil and Argentina.
Brazilian inter-city services operate on two routes, one from Vitória to Belo Horizonte (Vitória-Minas Railway) and another from Parauapebas to São Luís. A third service was proposed by São Paulo state government to operate from São Paulo to Americana.
Chile has inter-city services connecting Santiago to Chillán (occasionally to Temuco), run by Empresa de los Ferrocarriles del Estado. The fastest in Chile (and South America) is TerraSur, reaching around 150 km/h (93 mph).