Flying without wings in China: the future of train travel
Features, Science - Posted on Thursday, September 9, 2010 19:02 - 12 Comments
By Omayr Ghani
Mention magnet trains and one immediately conjures up images of the Shinkansens (bullet trains) of Japan. However, the majority of these are conventional rail vehicles, and the only commercial high-speed train service to use magnetic levitation (maglev) is China’s Transrapid service from Shanghai’s Pudong Airport to the city’s expat-dominated apartment complexes on Longyang road. It’s a 30km journey through the centre of town, which takes the Shanghai Transrapid just 7m 20s, at a top speed of 431 km/h (268mph).
The Shinkansens’ dominance has also been eclipsed by foreign competitors. Its 1997 commercial record of 300km/h (186mph) record was smashed by one of China’s CRH trains when the 922km (571m) Guangzhou-Wuhan line travelling at a top speed of 350 km/h (217mph) opened on boxing day of last year. Today, it completes the mammoth journey in less than 3 hours, forcing airlines to slash the prices of flights between the two cities by half.
When Japan’s National Rail was privatised in 1987, many saw that as the end of what promised to be a future of infinite possibilities. This sense of opportunities lost is being highlighted once more by China’s plans to extend its Maglev line from Shanghai to Hangzhou, allowing the 169km (105m) trip to be made in 27 minutes. China is also building 42 more lines of the same specification as the ones of the Guangzhou-Wuhan track, in the hope of connecting all its major cities by rail. China is also working with South Africa on a high speed Johannesburg-Durban line which, assuming it is completed before 2015 (when Morocco’s plans to unveil its own Tangier-Casablanca line,) will be Africa’s first high-speed-rail line. As ambitious as these developments seem, they pale in comparison to the most recent project, unveiled this month by China: Vacuum Trains.
Whilst Magnetic Levitation trains are able to surpass the top speeds of conventional rail, even at very short distances, through the elimination of wheel resistance, there is another way to increase speeds still further. This is done through the elimination of air by laying Maglev track through a series of vacuum-pumped tubes or tunnels, allowing the trains to move without friction. Though the idea was first conceived by liquid-fuelled-rocket inventor Robert Goddard in the 1910s, his blueprints weren’t discovered until after his death, in 1945. And the technology was not patented until 1999. The first proposed use of this technology, variously dubbed “flying without wings” and “space travel on earth”, was for Switzerland’s Gotthard Base Tunnel in 2005, though the plan fell through due to lack of political support, . as conventional high-speed-rail preferred. China, on the other hand, became interested in the proposal and this month revealed that researchers are currently working on a prototype for a vacuum train (Vactrain) that will be completed and capable of travelling at up to 1000km/h (621mph) speeds in two to three years. Moreover, Vactrains are scheduled to be available for commercial use in China within 10 years.
They have also found that using evacuated tunnels only increases costs by 10-20% per mile, in comparison to the Shanghai Maglev which, despite its short track, obscure route, limited operating hours, experimental nature and cheap tickets, has proved itself not only to be economically viable (with very little government subsidy) but able to expand its line at a third of the cost of the original track. Even if we use the upper estimate of 20%, that would still make Vacuum trains cheaper than conventional high-speed rail. According to figures by project and cost management consultancy Faithful+Gould, Maglev only costs £30m per kilometre of line, as opposed to £60m for High Speed Rail. The reasons for this are Maglev’s narrower track, ability to scale steeper gradients and elevated track that allows land underneath it to continue to be used.
As fast as 621mph may seem, it is not the limit for how fast these trains are able to go. With an increased length of track, which allows more time for acceleration than the prototype being developed, speeds of up to 4000mph can easily be achieved, making Vactrains over 7 times faster than commercial aeroplanes while using 25% as much energy.
Channel Tunnel pioneer Frank Davidson has long advocated the use of this technology for a transatlantic tunnel, supported by its own buoyancy, that would be able to get from London to New York in under an hour. He insisted that such a project requires no further scientific advances but only “getting used to new realities”. However, if we take into account Britain’s corporatist system of rail franchising, erratic investment, uniquely unnecessary levels of oversight and, in the case of the last transport secretary, outright political corruption, such realities are a long way from being understood by the government without a large increase in public awareness and activism in relation to public transport.
Given our increasing reliance on trains for long-distance travel, especially following recent volcanic eruptions, airline strikes, growing concerns about the effects of aviation-related emissions and ever-rising fuel prices, to advocate the use of a form of transport that independent academic reports have found to be “unaffected by any extremes in weather conditions… has low maintenance and operation costs”, causes no direct pollution and is four times as energy efficient as aeroplanes, seems like an intuitive way to ensure the transition from air to track becomes a step forward rather than a regressive lurch. A retired MIT professor of ocean engineering recently stated, in relation to the ultimate step of building a transatlantic Vactrain: “From an engineering point of view there are no serious stumbling blocks.” Chinese researchers have proved the same from an economic point of view yet the same cannot be said, in this country at least, of the political battle.
It is thus up to us, the public, to fight the political stumbling blocks of corruption and corporatism that are standing in the way. The sooner we do it, the better we’ll serve our communities and the environment.
Omayr Ghani is Ceasefire‘s Political Editor. He also likes trains, a lot.