There are few better ways to travel than by train. Nothing beats the romanticism of viewing the slow country meander past, perhaps with a good book on your lap or the tall tales of the other passengers to listen to.

Unfortunately, train travel is hardly what it used to be — in the United States, anyway. Travel by plane is now quicker, more convenient and often cheaper. America’s highways have replaced the romanticism of the cross-country train ride with the freedom of the “roadtrip.” Meanwhile, train travel has lost a lot of its former luxurious grandeur. Coach cabins are crammed, the dining cars seem to have misplaced their chefs for microwaves, and travel is slow and full of delays.

In many parts of the world, though, trains have experienced a revival over the last several decades: they’re reasonably priced, comfortable, convenient … and fast. So fast, in fact, that they often rival air travel in expedience and travel time. The technological development of bullet trains has made traveling by train sensible again. And even though the countryside whizzes by at a dizzying pace, it still offers a more intimate travel experience than air travel ever did.

High-speed rail is also much more energy efficient, especially on routes where ridership is high, than travel by motor vehicle or plane. These are just some of the reasons why trains are getting a second look in the U.S., with high-speed rail projects already planned in California and the Midwest.

To get a look at what the U.S. has to look forward to, here are the 9 best high-speed rail rides in the world.

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The Eurostar high-speed railway connects London with Paris, running undersea through a tunnel beneath the English Channel. The Channel Tunnel itself possesses the longest undersea portion of any tunnel in the world, and has been identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Eurostar’s Channel Tunnel line has revolutionized passenger travel between England and mainland Europe, which was previously only possible via plane or ship. In fact, today Eurostar carries more cross-channel passengers than all airlines combined. It’s a must-ride for world-traveling train aficionados everywhere.

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Japan’s high-speed rail network, Shinkansen, became the world’s first operator of passenger bullet trains when it opened in 1964 for the Tokyo Olympics, and it’s still a world leader. In fact, it has transported more passengers than any other high-speed line in the world, totaling about 151 million a year.

The network is also expansive, consisting of nearly 1,500 miles of rail lines, many of which regularly reach speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour. It’s almost always on time, too, coming in at only 12 seconds late on average.

Really, it’s the best way to travel in Japan, with a sterling environmental record. In fact, traveling the Tokyo to Osaka line, the busiest line in the network, produces only 16 percent of the CO2 emissions of an equivalent journey by car.

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TGV is France’s high-speed rail line, renowned for both its speed and comfortable first class accommodations. It was Europe’s first high-speed rail line when it opened in 1981, and has become a model for much of Europe’s renowned high-speed network since.

Today TGV trains operate at the highest speeds in the world for wheeled lines, regularly reaching 320 km/h. By 2010, the TGV service had already transported two billion passengers.

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Shanghai Maglev

China is rapidly becoming the world leader in high-speed trains. In fact, they have the largest high-speed rail network in the world, topping 2,000 total miles and continuing to grow. Perhaps China’s most revolutionary train, however, is the Shanghai Maglev.

The Maglev does not run on conventional rails, opting instead for magnetic levitation. Because this technology cuts down on friction, it allows the train to redefine the meaning of “high speed.” In fact, the Maglev is the world’s fastest train in regular commercial service, with a top speed of 431 km/h. Train aficionados with a speed kick will have this train on their must-ride list.

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Aside from having the “coolest” name among high-speed trains, Germany’s ICE line is also chillingly fast, licensed for speeds up to about 320 km/hr. It is one of the most widely used forms of public transportation in Germany, and has nearly a 100 percent brand awareness in the country.

While dangerous activities are not recommended, it’s also noteworthy that the ICE-3 line might be the first high-speed train to ever be successfully train-surfed (Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible” not withstanding). That’s certainly a train ride for the ages!

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The THSR stands for “Taiwan High Speed Rail,” and represents the line that runs almost the entire west coast of Taiwan, between Taipei and Kaohsiung. The trains have whittled the travel time along the 214-mile stretch down to just about an hour and a half. The thrilling ride runs on viaducts or through tunnels for most of its length.

Since it first opened service, THSR has carried more than 160 million passengers and has greatly reduced road traffic.

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AVE is Spain’s renowned high-speed rail network, with more than 1,600 miles of rail that makes it the second longest rail line in the world (behind China’s), and the largest in Europe. The name, AVE, is a play on the Spanish word for “bird,” apt, because these trains can certainly fly.

The ride between Madrid and Barcelona is the most popular, which is completed in just about two and a half hours. Passengers reduce their carbon emissions by 83 percent on the trip, and the train is also remarkably punctual — a 99 percent on-time rating.

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Based on France’s TGV line, the KTX (Korea Train Express) is South Korea’s high-speed railway. The trains are capable of reaching speeds up to 217 mph, which make them the forth line of bullet trains to hit that mark.

After being launched in 2004, KTX has been a remarkable success and plans to greatly expand the network are already well underway. In fact, the line is planned to connect Mokpo with Jeju Island, which will involve the construction of the world’s longest undersea tunnel.

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The Italo is Italy’s newest high-speed rail network, a private enterprise geared at offering an alternative to the country’s state-owned Trenitalia. Apparently, everyone in Italy is calling it the “Ferrari train.”

Not only is it fast, but it’s luxurious. First class includes free wi-fi, leather seats, in-seat smart TVs and hot meals. It’s difficult to imagine a better way to spend time whirling between Rome and Florence. The line just opened in April 2012. It might be the perfect time to travel Italy!

Main photo: Shinkansen train in Tokyo. Credit: Parag.naik/Wikimedia Commons