Flying without wings in China: the future of train travel

In this week's Science & Technology update, Omayr Ghani looks into the future of train travel. In particular, he considers the quasi-futuristic technological advances currently being pioneered in China. As the article shows, we could be entering an age of 'space travel' on earth and, as Ghani argues, the sooner we do the better it would be for us, and for the planet.

Features, Science - Posted on Thursday, September 9, 2010 19:02 - 12 Comments

Maglev high-speed trains: London to manchester in 55 minutes. (Photo:

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.

Vacuum Tube Train: A 4,000-mph magnetically levitated train. (Source: Mika Grondahl,

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.


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Sep 12, 2010 15:10

I like trains *a lot* too, but I’m not too keen on This Sort Of Thing. I like to see out of the window and take in the countryside, and you can’t really do that at 200mph+, nor when you’re in a bloody great vacuum tunnel.

Slightly more prosaically, the future of trains for me would involve train and bus timetable integration; the ability to go east-west in Britain without making stupid numbers of changes and going in ridiculously circuitous routes; enough coaches to meet demand and seats that match up to the windows.

Sep 13, 2010 11:00

As much as I’d love to agree with this vision of the future, its the robot butlers of the early C21st. There is several issues to be considered here. For a start, I’d seriously question the Faithful+Gould cost calculations (though I’d really like to see the report if you have a link). I suspect those costs for Maglev are based on the China example, with cheap labour and much lower safety requirements than is the case in Europe. Maglev needs huge infrastructure, and encasing that infrastructure in a concrete vacuum as well…. How on earth can that work out cheaper than HS? Also ‘low maintenance’ seems rather optimistic – how easy is maintenance work in a vacuum? How easy is it to even maintain a vacuum in such a situation? What is the land value likely to be beneath such a overground line? I sure wouldn’t want a house there.

Of course High Speed is also hugely expensive. The London Birmingham line will have a capacity of about 10,000 people an hour, for a cost of about £30bn. Then there is the environmental cost. HS2 wont actually decrease emissions on the route according to a 2007 report commissioned by the DfT. The speed means that energy requirements are actually on a par with cars. A vacuum tunnel might make huge energy savings from reduced drag, but the carbon footprint of the infrastructure would be vast.

The issue ultimately though is that all these technologies which make travel easier, cheaper and faster, are technologies which increase travel. Increased travel has always ultimately resulted in increased energy use and increased emissions. There is an alternative vision of the future which doesn’t buy into the promises made of tech like vacuum maglev, which look to me like the nuclear power of their time – huge centralised infrastructure projects burdened by unseen costs, which through their promotion of a hyper-mobile, hyper-consuming society, are just getting us to Hell that bit quicker.

The alternative isn’t an emphasis on speed, but instead on distance. What’s the purpose of all this travel? At the danger of sounding like a Christian billboard – where are we rushing to all the time? Is there any intrinsic value in being able to physically move through space at such speeds (in a black tunnel)? This hyper mobility is a historical accident borne of the US suburban ideal, and enabled by cheap oil. Peak Oil will shortly deliver a damning verdict on that dream; we should pay heed.

Sep 13, 2010 15:09

Thanks for your feedback.. While I don’t have an online link to the Faithful + Gould report to hand the reason their Regional Director Ian Metcalf gives for the difference in cost is that maglev:

“makes up much less space as it runs on an elevated track cantilevered over supporting columns. On top of this, the space underneath the track can continue to be used for farming. A high-speed rail corridor needs 25m2 of land for every linear metre of the route whereas maglev needs as little as 2m2 for the piers that support the two lines” Also, less money is needed for security. “Because maglev is elevated, it is inherently secure… On the Channel Tunnel Rail Link they spent an awful lot of money stopping people getting onto the infrastructure.”

Another advantage is that varying the height of the columns makes it easier to smooth out gradients and the piers don’t have to be set at constant intervals, which means it’s easier to avoid infrastructure such as gas and water mains. “There’s a huge cost implication in diverting services, so being able to vary the column spacing to avoid these saves an awful lot of money” (Source:

I completely agree with you about the overrated energy efficiency of conventional High Speed Rail (though one must note at longer distances a comparison with planes rather than cars is more apt) and as you note there would be huge reductions to these given the decrease in drag with Maglev and Vactrains. I would certainly dispute the fact that these decreases would be marginalized through the construction of concrete tubes and even if that does prove the case that still makes non-vacuum Maglev far more energy efficient than conventional High Speed rail or cars not to mention airplanes.

On the issue of whether hyper-mobility is actually a good thing, again I would agree with you that it would be nice if we didn’t have to travel such long distances to see family, friends or other cultures but the fact is we do so we may as well work to devise the most energy efficient way of doing so.

Sep 20, 2010 10:06

Thanks for the link. His argument about not having to divert other services seems sound, as is the lower land use (though is farm land that valuable?). The security point is rather ridiculous though – you could equally argue that having the track on columns creates a bigger risk by providing attackers with a weak point to blow up. Thats the good thing about security though: you can use it to argue pretty much anything.

I didn’t mean to argue that any gains in efficiency from maglev vaccuum would be lost in the construction, but simply that its the kind of thing that is often ‘overlooked’ by those trying to sell a technology.

Anyway, those questions are ultimately for economists and engineers, but the issue of hyper mobility is something I’m better qualified to have an opinion on. Your final paragraph misses the long demonstrated link between new transport infrastructure and transport growth. Its what led to the ‘predict and provide’ road building model to be abandoned. Grand projects like HS2 and maglev don’t just respond to demand, they create it.

Oct 27, 2010 19:13

wow MG… man… u sound like u r 200 years old… mobility (even if hyper, lol) is an intrinsic part of life… i am sure u remember that england took control over the seas from spain because they had developed FASTER and nimbler ships… also, trains have been going around at greater and greater speeds since the 1820s… american suburban sprawl hasn’t started until the 1940s… over 120 year later, in case you suck at math, too…this bullshit about it being “a historical accident borne by the us suburban ideal” is a typical pseudo-intellectual remark made by an arrogant, narrow-minded and pompous brit… u just drew yourself into a caricature and encouraged a stereotype, sir! your display of a rigid bureaucratic mind is almost baffling if it weren’t so common… comparing train schedules — or timetables as you call(ed) them — to the vast levels of progress, efficiency, etc reminds me of the nay-sayers who would fret back in the 1820s that trains could not possibly survive, because at 10 miles per hour the air would be sucked out and people would faint… come to think of it, it may have been you, sir, the one saying it…. go back to your bible and leave serious matters and progress to those who live in (this) reality

Ideas Hyper-Mobility or the End of the Road? – Ceasefire Magazine
Mar 7, 2011 23:27

[…] trend is apparent in a recent Ceasefire piece lauding the future of the vacuum Mag-Lev train. Travelling through airless tunnels and supported on […]

Jun 6, 2011 22:39

If these things could shift standard freight containers too we can forget a lot of shipping, rail freight and trucking (would only do final distribution). Big win for both environment and economy.

Jun 11, 2011 10:14

Seems a good idea, but why make trains so big? If the main cost is the tube, why not make it just enough to take 1 person sitting, not the huge one illustrated? Trains would be much longer, but does that matter?

Aussie stu
Jun 15, 2011 0:55

M G, it’s been interesting reading the discussion between you and O R G.
I think you’re really off-the-mark with your comments on the need for mobility. Your view I believe is very Euro-centric or Brit-centric in that it comes from the view point of someone who lives in a part of the world where it’s easy to (wrongly) believe that everything in the world worth visiting is within a few hours drive or flight. Most people in the world (like myself) do not live in the UK or even Europe and fast travel is a need, a real economic and social (emotional?) NEED.
Anyway, your opinion doesn’t really matter, as the Chinese (more on ‘my’ side of the world) are goign to build these things anyway. Thank goodness one country on earth has an apetite for adventure and forward thinking.
Aussie Stu.

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