Within the last 15 years, high-speed trains have drastically improved the connectivity between China’s urban centers. But the country does not stop there. In January 2021, researchers at China’s Southwest Jiaotong University unveiled a prototype for a new super-fast magnetic-levitation (Maglev) train that will be able to travel with up to 620 km/h. In light of this announcement, we look at China’s existing railway network, the history of Maglev technology, its current deployment in China, as well as future projects in the nation. Our conclusion: it is less a story about speed records, but instead about China once again acting as an “application leader” in rolling out a technology on a larger scale.
In the first part of this series, we will review China’s current HSR network, explore what magnetic levitation trains are, and look back at their brief history in Germany.
China’s High-Speed Rail Push
Nowadays it is difficult to imagine, but for a long time travelling in China by train was extremely slow and inconvenient. A trip home to celebrate Spring Festival with the family could total 2-3 days for some migrant workers. The infamous green trains were slow, crowded and uncomfortable. And despite having their own unique charme, this was clearly not an efficient way to connect a nation on the rise. In 1993, commercial trains in China only had an average speed of around 50 km/h and were losing appeal to airplanes and cars.
Recognizing the crucial importance of providing a more efficient while still affordable way of traversing the country, the government took inspiration from Japan. It decided to first upgrade existing train lines, then build a complete new system of high-speed rail (HSR) tracks. Today, only a little more than a decade has passed since China’s first commercial HSR line was opened between Beijing and Tianjin in 2007. In this period, the nation constructed more than 37,000 km of new track - crossing its vast terrains from the freezing North-East, over the economic centers at the coast, to the deserts and mountains in its vast Wes
In hindsight, putting so much top-level attention on high-speed trains was a smart idea: both politically and socio-economically, as well as for industry development and environmental reasons.
- Massive investments into building the HSR network fueled the domestic construction industry and had trickle-down effects throughout the economy
- The new rail lines make travelling much faster and more efficient - linking the main urban centers, while at the same time also leading to the development of smaller cities along the way
- Train travel is cheap and thus also more affordable for China’s rising middle class, providing an additional boost to domestic tourism
- While China’s high-speed trains have been relying on foreign technology for a long time, China is steadily raising the localization rate (initially by technology transfer, but also step-by-step via domestic innovation)
- Trains are a relatively “green” way to travel and additionally help to reduce the load on China’s highway network and airspace
But even after the already massive HSR accomplishment, further improving transportation stays on top of the agenda for both national and regional decision-makers. China keeps on heavily investing into ever more and better rail infrastructure (e.g. a recent upgrade to the Shenzhen-Xiamen link further reduced the travel time between the two cities from 3.5 to 2.5 hours), as well as disruptive technologies that might change the way Chinese travel once again. One of those might be levitating trains without wheels.
What are Magnetic Levitation trains?
Contrary to conventional trains with wheels as contact points to the rails, magnetic levitation systems use very powerful superconducting magnets to push the train up off the track and make it “float”. Another set of magnets is then using this lack of friction to move the train forwards. Although it sounds futuristic, experiments with magnetic propulsion and induction motors have been going on since the mid-20th century.
Maglev trains have a number of advantages: they can accelerate and decelerate much faster than normal trains, while at the same time also being much quieter and able to operate in all kinds of weather. Since there are no moving parts and no friction, these trains can reach much higher speeds and provide a more comfortable travelling experience. The technology is also inherently safe, because by definition only one train can use a given track section. Since the train wraps around the track, going off rails is also impossible. Lastly, a more even distribution of the weight and no direct contact with the track also make maintenance much cheaper.
However, there is a good reason why Maglevs have not become a mass transportation system yet: return on investment. Dedicated Maglev guideways would have to be built from scratch and can be several times as expensive as regular rails. Why? First, in Maglev systems the track itself (not the car) is the “motor” and contains most of the electronic parts (such as the superconductors), increasing construction cost. Second, Maglev trains require a straight and in most cases elevated rail in order to operate safely. Thus, in order to achieve suitable routing new tracks either require large-scale right-of-way clearing combined with extensive pile driving for the guideways, or even need to be constructed underground in densely populated areas.
In addition to competition from traditional high-speed trains, so far mostly the high construction costs have prevented a full breakthrough of Maglevs. Building a Maglev line, especially building one cross-country connecting urban centers, is a high upfront investment - requiring both a strong use case as well as a local government able to muster the necessary resources. Particularly in developed countries with existing infrastructure and cost-conscious decision-takers, this disadvantage often outweighs the many potential advantages.
Germany: The Transrapid Dream that fell apart
Germany was an innovation leader in Maglev technology as early as the 1970s and 80s. Plans for a German “Transrapid” system started in 1969, with a test facility in Emsland built in 1987. Several private companies as well as renowned universities worked on its development, and in 1991 technical readiness for application was approved by Deutsche Bundesbahn (German National Railway Company).
The Transrapid was one of several competing concepts for new land-based high-speed public transportation in Germany, competing with the more conventional InterCityExpress (ICE) trains. It was a period of high enthusiasm for this new technology. Promotional films painted a rosy picture of a completely new and futuristic travel experience. However, likely due to a mix of political and economic reasons, lastly it were the ICE trains that were adopted nationwide in Germany and not the Transrapid.
However, development continued: the last iteration, called Transrapid 09, was designed for a cruising speed of a whopping 500 km/h. The idea of a super-fast Transrapid still fascinated travelers and politicians. Probably most well-known is the plan of the State of Bavaria in the early 2000s to build a 40-kilometre Transrapid line connecting Munich Airport to Munich Main Station and thus reducing travel time to merely 10 minutes. The project came close to realization, but was cancelled in 2008 due to cost overrun.
The tombstone might have come even earlier in 2006. On a test run, a human error caused a Transrapid train to collide with a maintenance vehicle, killing twenty-three people and injuring ten. The tragedy severely reduced the confidence and fervour around Maglev technology. In 2011, the Emsland test track closed down and was demolished.
Thus, the results of this chapter of German innovation would actually never be commercially deployed in Germany. But meanwhile on the other side of the planet some of the technology was living on: in Japan, and in Shanghai.
Part 2 of this series will shed on current Maglev lines in China (spoiler: the Shanghai Maglev is not the only one) and introduce some of current developments as well as the country’s future plans with this technology.
All opinions expressed in this essay represent my personal views only.