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Will China’s 600km/h maglev train bring air travellers down to earth?

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Unveiled in Shandong, prototype will be a first step towards ground-breaking high-speed travel that will rival passenger jets, project engineer says

An experimental magnetic levitation train capable of travelling at 600km/h went on show at Qingdao in eastern Shandong province on Thursday, state media said.

Powerful electromagnets hold the Qingdao prototype at a thumb’s width from the rail, giving a quiet, smooth ride at speeds close to those involved in air travel, developers said.

While China operates the world’s fastest conventional train service, which can reach a speed of 350km/h, the Shanghai Maglev has been in commercial operation since the end of 2002 and can reach a top speed of 430km/h. It operates on one 30-kilometre (19-mile) line between two stations.

Ding Sansan, deputy chief engineer with developer the CRRC Sifang Corporation, said China achieved breakthroughs in maglev technology during the “three-year-battle” to build the new train that involved cooperation between more than 30 enterprises, universities and government research institutes.

 

The construction of a train body with ultra-lightweight, high-strength materials was a challenge, Ding said. Complex physical problems created by high speeds also needed to be solved in new ways if the Qingdao prototype was to reach peak performance.

China was a leader in technologies that included suspension, guidance, control and high-powered traction, Ding told Qingdao Daily.

The prototype promised to eliminate the advantages jet passenger planes had over ground vehicles over a distance of 1,500km, he said.

Taking Beijing-to-Shanghai by plane as an example, Ding suggested: “It takes about four-and-a-half hours by plane including preparation time for the journey; about five-and-a-half hours by high-speed rail, and [would] only [take] about three-and-a-half hours by maglev.”

While earlier reports suggested the prototype was expected to begin full-scale testing by 2020, it was unclear what Thursday’s unveiling meant for this timetable.

More maglevs would join the development project in the coming months, the team leader was quoted as saying, while mass production of the technology was likely by 2021.

In contrast to the optimism of the team at Qingdao, Chen Peihong, professor of economics at Beijing Jiaotong University and a transport analyst, was more circumspect about the future of maglev trains.

“The market has to be bigger. Technology alone cannot make [the concept] a success,” she said.

Public transport relied heavily on economies of scale, Chen said. Chinese cities including Jinan, Hangzhou and Chongqing were considering maglev lines, but even the longest – from Jinan to Taian – would not exceed 50 kilometres.

Chen said that electromagnetic fields from maglevs were greater than those from the lines that powered high-speed trains, while environmental worries might keep maglevs out of densely-populated areas.

There was a debate in China in the early 2000s about the benefits of a developing a maglev compared to high-speed rail, researchers on that project said. Rail was preferred by the government because it was an established technology and one that was cheaper to realise.

 

By the end of last year, China’s high-speed rail network extended to most of the country at a distance in excess of 29,000 kilometres, according to government figures, twice as long as the rest of the world’s high-speed rail lines combined. Spain’s high-speed AVE network was the second-longest at 3,100km.

Elsewhere, researchers in Chengdu, Sichuan province, said a vehicle inside a vacuum tube powered by a superconductor coil from a maglev train – a hyperlink – was in development. They expected the vehicle to reach speeds in excess of 1,000km/h as air was pumped from the tube and resistance to the speeding object gradually eliminated.


Source: South China Morning Post

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