The inauguration of the Shinkansen high-speed train service between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, at 210 kph maximum operating speed some 40 years ago marked the comeback of the train as an important passenger mode of transport. Since then high-speed train (HST) services have been introduced in many countries and are planned in many more, and the train has once more become the dominant mode of transport on many routes. This review summarizes the different elements of HST operation with the aim of characterizing HST operation and putting in context its impact in terms of what it is best designed for and what it can deliver. The review concludes that the HST is best designed to substitute conventional railway services on routes where much higher capacity is required and to reduce travel time, further improving the railway service, also against other modes, therefore leading to mode substitution. However, the high investment in HST infrastructure could not be justified based on its economic development benefits since these are not certain. Finally, the following definition for HST services is suggested: high capacity and frequency railway services achieving an average speed of over 200 kph.