image

China science

Is China firm’s plan to develop 4,000 km/h train just a pipe dream?

Company says its concept would combine supersonic aircraft and high-speed rail technologies, but experts have cast huge doubts on the scheme

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 3:55pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2017, 7:10pm

A Chinese aerospace firm’s claim that it is developing a “flying train” capable of travelling at up to 4,000 km/h has met with scepticism and wry humour from transport experts and members of the public in China.

China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation announced plans on Wednesday to research a futuristic train network that would first run at 1,000km per hour between cities, eventually developing to reach top speeds of 4,000km/h.

That target is well over 10 times faster than the maximum speed of existing bullet trains.

The idea was unveiled by Liu Shiquan, the corporation’s deputy chief executive, at an industry conference in Wuhan in Hubei province on Wednesday, the official Science and Technology Daily reported.

The company did not give a timeline for its ambitious plans.

Liu said the company wanted to work with over 20 Chinese and international scientific research groups on the project, according to the report.

The target speed of 4,000km/h also by far exceeds the maximum speeds of commercial passenger jets such as the Airbus A380 at 1,020km/h and the Boeing 787 at 954km/h.

“Flying trains” would theoretically allow passengers to travel from Beijing to Wuhan in central China in half an hour, the Chinese aerospace corporation claims.

The project aims to combine supersonic aircraft and high-speed rail technologies such as magnetic levitation, or Maglev, and vacuum tube trains, or vactrains, on which Tesla founder Elon Musk based his concept of Hyperloop trains back in 2013. Hyperloop technology trains may be able to travel up to 1,200km/h.

Experts, however, have raised strong doubts about the Chinese scheme.

Zhao Jian, a professsor at Beijing Transport University, said the human body could only physiologically withstand acceleration to speeds of 4,000km/h for a very short amount of time.

“In that case, are the passengers going to be astronauts only?” he asked.

He also questioned the economic viability of the idea, saying the volume of traffic would be too small for the commercial operation of such a massively expensive project.

“There would be high costs involved in improving the speed in stages, I wonder if it would be economically viable to do so,” he said.

China Aerospace Science said the first stage of the project operating between regional cities would run at 1,000 km/h, an official familiar with the matter told the Shanghai-based news website Thepaper.cn.

This would later be increased to 2,000km/h between key cities, with the final stage of 4,000km/h to connect countries involved in China’s international “Belt and Road” trade initiative.

China to rev up bullet train revolution with world’s fastest service on Shanghai-Beijing line

Internet users in China were highly sceptical of the Chinese firm’s chances of developing trains that could travel at such massive speeds.

Some pointed out that it took China six years to increase the top speed of its bullet trains from 300km/h to 350km/h and that no braking system in the world would be able to bring the “flying train” to an emergency stop from its maximum speed and keep passengers alive. China has begun increasing the speed on some bullet train services to 350km/h after it was capped at 300km/h following a deadly train crash in Wenzhou in Zhejiang province in 2011.

Other internet users in China said the authorities should tackle more immediate transport problems rather than flights of fancy about flying trains.

“Can the government please invent technology to solve traffic jams first? It takes me an hour to drive from the fifth to the third ring road,” one commenter from Beijing wrote on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

It is not the first time Chinese scientists have claimed to be researching ways to develop an ultra high-speed railway transport.

Researchers at Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu in Sichuan province told the South China Morning Post last year they were planning to build a high-speed vactrain test track.

Beyond Hyperloop: Chinese scientists board ‘vacuum train’ for possible military projects

One of the team members, Zhao Chunfa, said at the time: “On a straight railway several kilometres long we can accelerate to over 1,000km/h without much difficulty using existing tech­nology.”

US firms Hyperloop One and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies are the only other major companies attempting to develop trains with maximum speeds over 1,000km/h.