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Technology

China, Japan jointly develop ‘albatross’ high-speed train, with a top speed of 500km/h 

The new Aero Train, with its albatross-inspired design, has the capacity to beat the top speed of the Shanghai Maglev, currently the world’s fastest train

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2018, 6:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2018, 3:48pm

China’s efforts to bring high-speed rail travel around the world look set to heat up as it jointly develops a robotic train with Japan that can run up to 500 kilometres per hour, which would make it one of the world’s fastest trains.

Test runs and manufacturing of the first- and second-generation versions of the Aero Train have been conducted in Japan, the Chongqing Morning Post reported, citing Lai Chenguang, a project participant and a professor at the Chongqing University of Technology.

The Aero Train’s indicative top speed of 500km/h would beat the Shanghai Maglev, which clocked in at 430km/h.

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Initial plans would have Japan launch the world’s first Aero Train line in 2025. 

Once commercially deployed, the Aero Train can cut travelling time between Tokyo and Osaka to an hour from the current schedule of two hours and 30 minutes on the Nozomi Shinkansen, the fastest of the three types of Japanese bullet trains.

Lai did not respond to email inquiries for more details about the Aero Train project.

A team of Japanese researchers from Tohoku University in Sendai, a city of north of Tokyo, first unveiled the Aero Train project in 2011 in a paper presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Shanghai, according to a report in online magazine Industry Leaders.

The Aero Train, like the Shanghai Maglev, does not run on rails. The aerodynamically levitated train uses stubby, U-shaped little wings and fast-moving air to fly just above the ground.

The Shanghai Maglev, with its magnetic levitation system, is supposed to do exactly the same thing, but the typical wind drag created between the bottom of a maglev train and the rails make these inefficient and expensive, according to the Industry Leaders report.

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Under a government plan that started in 2016, China has pushed forward the development of next-generation trains that can carry passengers at a top speed of 500km/h and cargo at 250km/h that would fit different track gauges used around the world.

The country is using high-speed rail systems as the next spearhead to gain a technological edge over the United States, Japan and Europe.

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Construction of high-speed railways abroad is part of Beijing’s massive “Belt and Road Initiative”, which is expected to help increase trade and infrastructure links with countries from Asia to Africa.

Signing high-speed rail deals has come high on the agenda for Chinese leaders making trips overseas, but many of these deals often suffer delays because of financing issues.

China is also in the middle of a massive 3.5 trillion yuan (US$554 billion) programme to extend its high-speed rail network, which is already the largest in the world.

The system now has 22,000km of track, with plans to increase this to 30,000km by 2020, connecting more than 80 per cent of the nation’s big cities.

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Lai said the stabilisation provided by the aeroplane-inspired design of the Aero Train could help accelerate its commercial deployment, according to the Chinese media report.

“[The] annular spoiler could stabilise the train as it runs,” said Lai. “The design also improves its speed and load capacity, while reducing its [operating] cost.” 

It had seemed impossible before to make zero-pollution and natural-energy driving trains, but this is now being realised in our lifetime
Lai Chenguang, Chongqing University of Technology

Lai said the idea for the Aero Train’s design was inspired by the albatross, which uses a flying technique called dynamic soaring to achieve elevation between air masses of different velocity.

“It had seemed impossible before to make zero-pollution and natural-energy driving trains, but this is now being realised in our lifetime,” Lai said.

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Still, China has encountered a number of barriers in its efforts to sell high-speed rail technology around the world. These include local regulations, political and economic volatility, and the high cost of these advanced rapid transit projects.

China has banked on its ability to build high-speed rail for less than its competitors in Japan and Germany. The World Bank has estimated that Chinese high-speed rail lines cost between US$17 million and US$21 million per kilometre to roll out, compared with US$25 million to US$39 million per kilometre in Europe.

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But geographic difficulties in building bridges and tunnels, which are essential to make journeys shorter and easier for the passage of high-speed trains, add to the costs of building modern rail links.