China has a new test system for maglev trains that ‘fly on the ground’
- Engineers on the project aim to develop ultra-high-speed travel by combining railway and aerospace technology
- They say trains will be able to operate at 1,000km per hour inside a vacuum tube, according to state media report
Chinese engineers say they have developed a test system that will be able to accelerate a train at 1,000km per hour (621mph) inside a vacuum tube – faster than existing maglev trains, according to state media.
Engineers working on the project in central China say they aim to build an ultra-high-speed low-vacuum pipeline maglev transport system by combining railway and aerospace technology, the official Science and Technology Daily reported on October 20.
The team from the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) hopes they will eventually be able to operate maglev trains in a tube with extremely thin air – meaning they would “fly on the ground” at speeds that rival planes.
The technology could solve the two biggest problems in train transport: friction between the wheels and the track, and air resistance to the train body.
Maglev – or magnetic levitation – technology eliminates the friction, while operating the train in a low-vacuum pipeline reduces resistance and noise.
The 2km vacuum tube maglev line, located in Datong, Shanxi province, was inspired by Elon Musk’s Hyperloop project, which was proposed about a decade ago, with a prototype train revealed in 2018.
While the technology has attracted a lot of investment, it has significant technical challenges. Carlo van de Weijer, director of smart mobility at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, told The New York Times earlier this month that “the high infrastructure costs associated with Hyperloop do not justify the expense”.
But Zhao Ming, who heads the Department of Maglev and Electromagnetic Propulsion Technology at CASIC, is more optimistic about the technology.
“China is vast – the distance between major cities can be more than 600 miles,” he told Shanxi Daily last year. “So to have a ‘one-hour economic circle’ with national scope, transport at a speed of 1,000km per hour is required.”
While China has drawn on Japanese and European technology for its extensive high-speed rail network, CASIC said it owned the intellectual property rights of the Shanxi test line.
Its development was made possible, in part, by the rapid development of new industrial materials in China.
The maglev track, for instance, needs steel with low magnetic permeability, or a low response to a magnetic field – otherwise the track will generate eddy currents that cause a loss of energy during operation.
According to an April report in state-backed China Metallurgical News, run by the China Iron and Steel Association, the low-magnetic steel rebar produced by China Baowu Taigang “perfectly meets this standard”.
“In addition to its excellent mechanical properties and low magnetic permeability, the rebar is more durable,” the report said.
CASIC is also working with state-owned China Railway on the low-vacuum pipeline project.
Zhao said the train would be “as safe and stable as a plane”.
“We can restore the pressure of the pipeline to a normal level within five minutes,” he told Shanxi Daily.
However, Lu Fang, a senior engineer with Beijing Jiaotong University’s traffic and transport school, said there were concerns about the technology.
“There are risks in the event of an accident such as a derailment or emergency braking, and safety plans must be set up for that,” Lu wrote in the journal China Transportation Review in July.
“The train has high requirements for a smooth route – so designing the route will inevitably destroy cultivated land.
“Although the technical, theoretical issues are being gradually resolved, the construction of ultra-high-speed maglev transport needs to be treated rationally,” he said, adding that it was unlikely to be developed for practical use in the short term.