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Magnetic Attraction

A new prototype maglev train has reignited enthusiasm for supporters of the technology. But given the cost and China’s extensive high-speed rail system, is there a rationale to build more lines?

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

R&D workers from Qingdao Sifang, a railway company, test the performance of a prototype high-speed maglev which will eventually have an intended operational speed of 600 kilometers per hour

On June 21, at Tongji University in Shanghai, a prototype high-speed maglev (magnetic levitation) test vehicle completed a successful maiden trial run along a 1.5 kilometer test track. Although it did not reach anywhere near the final intended operational speed of 600 kilometers per hour, it still marked an important breakthrough in China’s high-speed maglev development.

“Take the journey from Beijing to Shanghai for example. It takes about 4.5 hours by plane including check-in time and it’s about 5.5 hours by high-speed rail. But on a maglev train, it will only take 3.5 hours,” said Ding Sansan, head of the research and development team for the maglev project and deputy chief engineer of China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC)’s subsidiary Qingdao Sifang Co., Ltd.  

Maglev train development has proceeded in fits and starts in China. In 2006, the Shanghai-Hangzhou Maglev Transport Project proposal was approved by the State Council, and it was originally planned to be in operation by the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. But due to issues including economic and environmental concerns, the project was shelved. Since then, while China’s high-speed rail network continues to expand, the maglev momentum has ground to a halt.  

The prototype test might be a signal that China’s maglev ambitions are not done.  

“As the whole system and technology matures, high-speed maglev will certainly be operated in our country, but the only uncertainty is where and when to do it,” Chen Xiaohong, president of the Institute of Railway and Urban Rail Transit Research at Tongji University and director of the National Research Center for Maglev Traffic Engineering Technology, told NewsChina.  

Key Point
Maglev trains are frictionless, propelled by electromagnets and hovering above the track once they get going. They rest on wheels when they come to a halt at stations. China already has short maglev lines operating at different top speeds as part of public transit networks.  

At 80 to 120 km/h, low- to medium-speed maglev trains are used in urban rail or airport rail systems. In May 2016, Changsha Maglev Express was launched in Hunan Province to connect Changsha South Station and Changsha Huanghua International Airport. It runs at 100 km/h. A mid-speed maglev runs at 200 to 400 km/h, similar to high-speed rail. A speed of 400 to 1,000 km/h is considered a high-speed maglev. The Shanghai TransRapid maglev, which opened to passengers in 2004 and runs to Pudong International Airport on a 30-kilometer track, hits a top speed of 431 km/h, still the fastest maglev in commercial operation.  

A speed of over 1,000 kilometers per hour is called a super-high-speed maglev. In 2013, Tesla founder Elon Musk proposed an idea for a futuristic transportation system named the Hyperloop, which could transport passengers at ultra-fast speeds of up to 1,000 kilometers per hour in underground tunnels. Similar to the Hyperloop concept, a high-speed maglev transportation system is so far the only large-scale ground public transportation system which could be realized.  

Japan is at the forefront of research and development in this field. In 2015, Japan set a new land-speed record of 603 km/h for a manned train at its Miyazaki test track. The country is building a high-speed maglev train line between Tokyo and Nagoya aiming to operate at 505 km/h which is slated to start carrying passengers in 2027. China has set the target speed for its high-speed maglev trains at 600 km/h. Yet the higher the speed, the greater the technical challenges.  

According to CRRC Qingdao Sifang, the test of the vehicle, one of five prototype vehicles it is building, enabled them to obtain crucial data. The dynamic trials confirmed the vehicle’s stability and the performance of its suspension, and the key concepts of the design performance of the system from the previous static trials. It also provides important technical support for the next prototype.  

Sun Zhang, a retired professor and expert on high-speed rail at Tongji University, told NewsChina: “The guideway at Tongji University is only 1.5 kilometers, so it’s really a very preliminary test. But it’s a significant first step toward success through the initial achievements to run, float, turn and climb.” 

In Sun’s opinion, the greater significance is that while Shanghai’s maglev project was based on German technology from Siemens and Thyssen-Krupp, this time China is developing its own technology.  

In 2019, high-speed maglev was listed as a frontier key technology in China’s “Outline for the Construction of a Powerful Transportation Country.” The success of the trial run, according to Chen means that, “In terms of overall national planning and construction, it will enable researchers, engineers and decision-makers to observe the real progress of the system, perceive how the new generation of self-developed maglev vehicles is running, and further enhance the confidence of various stakeholders to continue promoting the implementation of the project.” 

Others are more cautious. Zhu Qijie, former vice president of the China Railway Research Institute, told NewsChina that there was no need to get too excited about the trial run. “I was also the head of the General Station of Supervision and Inspection of Product Quality of the Ministry of Railways during my tenure, and was the technical director of the Ministry of Railways’ speed-up and high-speed tests, so I am clear about the process of different tests for rail transit vehicles before they go into real operation,” Zhu said. “This kind of trial run isn’t a big deal.” 

Local Enthusiasm 
The average air travel speed of jet passenger planes is 800 kilometers per hour, while that of conventional high-speed trains in China is around 300 kilometers per hour. “Maglevs are expected to fill the gap between the two and provide the best option for an intercity journey that extends 1,000 to 1,500 kilometers,” Ding Sansan said. A maglev is fast to start and stop, and it only takes three minutes to accelerate to 600 km/h over a distance of less than 20 kilometers. It takes six minutes for a high-speed train to accelerate from zero to 350 km/h.

Maglev supporters believe even with high-speed rail, there is still a market in China, for example, by forming a high-speed corridor between large hub cities or between urban agglomerations. For short- and medium-distance transportation, it could promote integrated development of city clusters.  

Chen Xiaohong believes that urban agglomerations such as Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao, Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and the Yangtze River Delta will require rapid transportation connections. The current high-speed rail network has a bit of room to speed up on certain lines, but not too much. “In important corridors, it’s not enough to have one high-speed line. In the future, Beijing and Shanghai, including the whole coastal corridor, will require more lines and greater capacity due to the high passenger demand,” Chen Xiaohong said.  

With the current economic slowdown, local authorities are enthusiastic about infrastructure projects, including inter-city high-speed rail and urban rail transit as a means to propel growth. In the past two years, many plans in Shenzhen have mentioned the construction of a second high-speed railway between Guangzhou and Shenzhen. In 2019, Shenzhen asked for bids for “Planning and Research on a Guangzhou-Shenzhen High-speed Maglev Intercity Railway,” with aclear instruction for the bidders to focus on the feasibility of the 600 km/h train.  

In December 2019, the State Council issued the Outline of the Plan for the Development of Regional Integration in the Yangtze River Delta, which mentioned that “the Yangtze River Delta will actively and prudently carry out planning and research on maglev train projects in Shanghai and Hangzhou.” In April, Zhejiang Province announced it would fulfill a number of major demonstration projects to lead the country, which includes planning for the Shanghai-Hangzhou-Ningbo super maglev, with investment of 100 billion yuan (US$14.2b) and a speed of 600 km/h.  

Other cities and provinces including Chengdu, Qingdao and Hainan have either included the development of high-speed maglevs in their long-term transportation strategy or have carried out feasibility studies. 

In Chen’s view, the development of high-speed maglev and the existing high-speed rail network will not be in conflict. “Along the important track corridors among cities, where there is already existing high-speed rail, maglev will be a supplement to the transportation capacity. It will be to fill the speed gap for passenger expectations.” 

Sun Zhang is even more optimistic. He believes a long-term view is necessary to acknowledge the strategic significance of high-speed maglev. “China’s economic development is unbalanced, and the biggest gap is still between the east and the west. According to the urban agglomeration theory, if a maglev high-speed rail line connecting Shanghai and Hefei, [Anhui Province] could go further through Wuhan to Chongqing and Chengdu, the strategic significance will be great, and its value would be appreciated in the future.” 

It takes 2.5-3 hours to travel the 468 kilometers from Shanghai to Hefei by high-speed train. To Chengdu, in the country’s interior, the distance by train is 1,976 kilometers, taking around 14 hours.  

Uncertain Revival 
Much more needs to be done following the first trial. Sun Zhang told the reporter that there are several stages required to restart the high-speed maglev train project, from the current single car to a whole train, and to extend the length of the test line to increase the speed. Then, the whole train requires further tests on systems such as power supply, suspension, turning, operational stability, communication signals and the train control system. Before it goes into full passenger operations, the train must complete 600,000 kilometers of trials. This is also the standard procedure for a high-speed train to be put into use. Chen said that the construction of high-speed maglev will be in places where there is market demand so there will not be a big network at first. “The future of high-speed maglev networks will actually be organically developed corridors, which we think is more likely as a future application than what we have now,” Chen said.  

High-speed maglev is not compatible with existing rail lines, and it will take a very long time to form an operational network, which is where the controversy lies domestically over whether to restart the maglev. 

Over a decade ago, the Ministry of Railways, Zhejiang Province and Shanghai organized a discussion panel for the Shanghai-Hangzhou maglev. Zhu Qijie was invited to participate. He told NewsChina that there were already two railway lines from Shanghai to Hangzhou and a high-speed rail line was scheduled to be operational way before a maglev line could be. So the panel doubted if there would be enough demand for another line.  

Industry insiders are concerned with the cost, which is estimated at about 1.5 times that of conventional bullet trains, according to Sun Zhang. Chen said the cost would not be much higher than high-speed rail, and that long-term operation and maintenance costs should be considered apart from the construction costs. She cited the example of the Tokyo-Osaka Maglev Shinkansen, which will cost about 10 percent more than a conventional railway line, but will shorten the round-trip time and generate more socio-economic value. Yet Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University School of Economics and Management told the reporter that at present, China’s high-speed rail capacity is still underused. Japan’s Dongkaido Shinkansen utilization rate is 160 pairs of cars a day, but in China there is no high-speedline which has attained such a large passenger flow. “In this situation, there’s no point constructing more high-speed maglev,” Zhao said. 

A World Bank report put the cost of building regular high-speed rail in China at US$17-21 million per kilometer, much cheaper than in other countries. The Shanghai maglev cost around US$39.6 million per kilometer. But the new line in Japan from Tokyo to Nagoya has already been forced to push back its opening date from 2027 due to environmental issues, Japan Rail said, which will have a knock-on effect on the opening of the line to Osaka which might not be delivered until the late 2030s. The line to Nagoya is 286 kilometers long, and is expected to cost US$84 billion, reducing travel time to 40 minutes, half the current time, Kyodo News reported. 

Zhao said that maglev trains operating at speeds of 500 to 600 km/h will require one station for every 100 kilometers, which means the limited number of stops will not stimulate the local economy along the route.  

“Some local governments want to propel the local economy, but with the Covid-19 pandemic, local debt has increased. Considering the existing high-speed rail and highway debt pressures, it’s unwise to invest further in high-speed maglev train projects. If local governments invest, they will lose money and the debt will only be shouldered by the State in the end,” Zhao said. 

“As a latecomer, it will be difficult for the maglev to find a proper development space,” admitted Chen Xiaohong, who favors maglev. Regular rail networks are established and have history. “It will take time for the public to recognize and accept the high-speed maglev.”