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Magnetic Levitation Trains: The Next Step for Transportation in China? (2/2)

{{{Marco Beba 马智}}}

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.

While the first part of this series focused on a review of China’s current HSR network and the background of Maglev technology, Part 2 will shed on current Maglev lines in China and introduce some of the current developments and the country’s future plans with this industry.

Shanghai Maglev: A Mixed Picture

Inaugurated in 2003 and conceived as both a testament to progress as well as a technology showcase, the Shanghai Maglev is the world’s fastest, first commercially operational Maglev train. To this day, it connects far-away Shanghai Pudong International Airport with Longyang Road Metro Station at the outskirts of Shanghai. When travelling at its top-speed of 430 km/h, it can cover the 30 km distance in under 8 minutes. It does that trip 115 times per day.

The line was designed and built by German company Transrapid International, a joint venture of Siemens and ThyssenKrupp – a reminder of a time when German companies were leading in this field. It cost around 1.2 billion USD to build and was meant primarily for demonstration purposes (the so-called Initial Operating Segment), with ridership as a secondary concern. In this aim, the Shanghai Maglev has succeeded. It has been running for almost 20 years, transporting passengers swiftly with a reliability rate of 99.97%, and acting as a showcase for the can-do attitude of China.

However, the limited demonstration route is also its greatest weakness: forcing passengers aiming for the city center to change transportation methods halfway at Longyang Station and thus only saving a limited amount of time. This is one of the reasons the line has proved neither very commercially successful nor extremely popular among residents. In the beginning there had been plans to extend the section to Shanghai South Railway Station and Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai’s West, which never happened.

Today, despite still looking futuristic, the train and the station feel a little run down, and have lost some of their previous glamour. Given that construction on a new express metro line directly connecting the city’s two airports has recently started and is scheduled to be completed in 2024, the dream of a high-speed Maglev crossing Shanghai is most likely over.

Apart from the well-known Maglev line to Shanghai’s Pudong Airport, there are actually two more active commercial train lines of this kind in the nation. However, both fall under the category of low-to-medium speed, designed for urban use:

  • The Changsha Maglev Express, opened in 2016, connects Changsha Huanghua International Airport and Changsha South Railway Station with speeds of up to 100 km/h.
  • In China’s capital, the Beijing S1 Maglev Train Mentougou Line, extending the capital’s subway network in the West of the city. This line was opened in 2017 and reaches similar speeds as the one in Changsha, but seems to be able to run trains with up to six cars.

Both lines have been mostly developed domestically. Nicely edited and insightful videos of both the Changsha Maglev as well as the Beijing S1 can be found on YouTube.

In 2021, one more low-to-medium speed Maglev line with speed of up to 100 km/h is scheduled to start operations in Qingyuan, Guangdong province. The first phase has 4 stations and stretches over 8.1 km length, which could be further extended to almost 40 km in the future.

Future Maglev Plans in China

Even after constructing the world’s largest high-speed train network in merely a decade, further improving transportation remains a top priority in China. In the concepts currently under development, magnetic levitation trains seem to be playing a key role in two ways: as super-fast inter-regional city cluster connectors, as well as medium-speed intra-region urban infrastructure. While the first category naturally makes for better headlines, the second type of Maglev has the potential for much wider application.

High-Speed Inter-Regional Maglevs

Announced in 2015 and first unveiled in 2020, several public/ private research institutions and companies led by China’s Southwest Jiaotong University are developing a super-high-speed magnetic-levitation train that will be able to travel at up to 620 km/h. For comparison: Japan is currently building a Maglev link between Tokyo and Nagoya, which is supposed to open in 2027 and can travel with up to 500 km/h.

A futuristic 21-meter prototype was revealed in 2021. Its design features a full carbon fiber lightweight body and a low-resistance locomotive shape. But arguably one of its key elements is the use of high-temperature superconductors (-196 degrees Celsius) instead of liquid helium superconductors (-269 degrees Celsius). These are cheaper in both production and operation, therefore significantly improving the previously shaky business case of the technology. The researchers commented that a commercially viable product might only be six years aways.

Also in early 2021, Guangdong revealed an ambitious long-term infrastructure plan, that includes concepts for a proposed Maglev link between the southern province, Shanghai on the east coast as well as the capital Beijing. That would require more than 1,000 km of newly built Maglev-specific track. If realized, this line could potentially cut travel time for a Shenzhen-Beijing trip (similar distance to e.g. Hamburg-Istanbul) to mind-boggling 3 ½ hours. While the route only exists on paper so far, a 200 km test track in Hubei and Hunan Province in central China seems to be already under construction and could become a part of the Maglev line linking China’s north and south in the future.

Medium-Speed Intra-Regional Maglevs

On the other end of the spectrum, some companies are working to bring magnetic levitation technology also to other areas of traveling. In Chengdu, for example, Chinese company Xinzhu Road & Bridge Machinery is cooperating with Max Bögl Group from Germany in the development of a new-generation medium-to-low speed Maglev system. As shown before, this less headline-prone sub-segment of magnetic-levitation trains is already utilized in Beijing and Changsha, and might actually prove to be a viable technological alternative for key urban routes and mid-distance  transportation within cities or city clusters.

Xinzhu is establishing a Maglev technology test line in Chengdu for testing, verification and demonstration of the system, with test speeds of 160 km/h. Its heavy track segments are almost 12 metres long and made from precast concrete elements. The elements are manufactured in series production at Max Bögl’s German headquarters, which also manufactures the vehicle. While the track segments are placed in containers and transported to China by rail, the vehicle itself was delivered from Munich to the Chengdu demonstration track by air with an Antonov aircraft. Having been commissioned in October 2019, the track is due to go into full operation soon.

Both projects introduced above represent a noteworthy example of China’s strategy to develop industry clusters. For Maglev technology, this seems to be located around Chengdu and Sichuan Province - probably for a variety of reasons: Chengdu is a main branch of CRRC, which has almost 70 years history of building railroads. It is home to several good engineering universities. And the surrounding province surprisingly also seems a good fit in terms of natural resources. As Professor He Chuan (Vice President of Southwest Jiaotong University) says: "Sichuan has rich rare earth resources, which is very beneficial to our construction of permanent magnet tracks, thus promoting the faster development of experiments." Nevertheless, Maglev trains are also built at other sites in China such as at CRRC Changchun (Jilin province) and CRRC Tangshan (Hebei province).

Contrary to misconceptions of some people in Western countries (where enthusiasm for Maglev systems has long faded), the technology is far from dead. Not only in China but also in Japan and Korea Maglev trains are already in use and the next iterations of this so far under-utilized transportation method are under development. In the future, Maglev trains might even be an alternative to airplanes when travelling between the country’s large city-clusters, while at the same they could also see increasing usage in low-speed sub-urban settings. All in all, after being in development for decades and facing ups and downs, the Maglev technology might soon finally be ready to enable faster, greener and more comfortable travelling – not just for demonstration, but on a “China scale”.

Here, China is once again showing its proven approach of becoming an application leader in an innovative technology first developed somewhere else: by evolving it further for specific use cases and being bold enough to apply it in reality - similar to industries such as mobile communication technology, Artificial Intelligence or electric vehicles.

Lastly, it will be interesting to observe how the new Maglev concepts are faring against several Hyperloop systems currently under development in other countries, e.g. a route between LA and San Francisco, or between Washington D.C. and New York. Are hyperloops an evolution of magnetic-levitation trains? Will the two systems co-exist in various conditions or even be combined? For example, Chinese researchers appear to be already working on Maglev trains running in a vacuum tunnel to achieve even faster speeds. But it will be many years until we might see some of this in reality.

 

All opinions expressed in this essay represent my personal views only.

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