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Shanghai's maglve train

China is home to the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation (maglev) train service. A Sino-German joint venture built a 38-kilometer-long route between downtown Shanghai and the Pudong airport that opened in 2003. The project cost US$1.2 billion and has experienced an average of 8,000 passengers per day, well below capacity. There are no inter-city or inter-province maglev lines yet in China. Some cities including Shanghai and Chengdu have started to conduct research. In 2004 the first Chinese-made maglev train made its debut in Dalian, a major port city in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province. The 10.3-meter-long train has a top speed of just under 110 kilometers per hour. Although the cost to build was high at US$6 million per kilometer, China’s outlay was still only one-sixth of the world average.

China is spending billions of dollars on maglev technology. The fastest passenger trains reach speeds of 620 kph — well beyond the current limits of conventional steel wheel trains. According to CNN: Two lines are currently under construction totaling around 170 miles, Shanghai-Hangzhou in Zhejiang province and a 110-kilometer underground route linking Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the two biggest cities in the densely populated Pearl River Delta region. It is expected that the latter will eventually extend to Kowloon in Hong Kong. [Source: Ben Jones, CNN, February 9, 2022]

These projects build on experience gained with the German-backed Shanghai Airport maglev line, which opened in 2003, and is currently the only line of its kind in public operation. Taking a typically pragmatic approach to raising the speed of land transport, China sees maglev as a better option than the much hyped, but unproven Hyperloop for bridging the gap between high-speed rail and air on long-distance routes.

The Shanghai government has proposed spending $4.5 billion to expand the maglev train to Hangzhou. The project has outraged local citizens, for its cost, waste, the danger presented by such powerful electromagnetism, plans to route it through an area already filled with train lines and highways and its affect on property values. In some cases the value of apartments had dropped from $2 million to $160,000. In January 2008 — after angry demonstrations by local residents were held despite official bans — the Shanghai government acknowledged there were problems with the project and promised to take into consideration public concerns — a rare recognition of the wishes of the masses. The Shanghai-Hangzhou corridor already has a new bullet train similar to Japan’s Shinkansen.

Shanghai Maglev to Pudong Airport

Shanghai is the home of the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation (maglev) train. Opened in early 2004 and built by German engineers at a cost of $1.2 billion, it reaches speeds of 260mph (415kph) and covers the 19 miles distance between Pudong International Airport to the 88-story Jin Mao Tower in downtown Shanghai in less than eight minutes.

The maglev is regarded as a prestige project intended to boost the standing of Shanghai and China as whole, not make money. The stations look like futuristic lace tubes. The streamlined trains, which look like crosses between space-age fighters and conventional trains, hoover millimeters above a single gray track that is several stories above the ground and imbedded with powerful magnets that produce a faint humming when the trains pull in the stations.

Passengers are told by a loudspeaker voice when they enter the train that they will be “flying without wings.” As the train accelerates there are few indications that the train is traveling extremely fast other than the buildings blurring by. You don’t even feel any vibrations until the train tops 400kph. The Chinese are so proud of the train they have even opened a little museum that explains how it works at downtown departure terminal.

The trains depart every 15 to 20 minutes from 8:30am to 5:30pm, which means it often isn’t running when many flights arrive and depart. Tickets are $6 each way. Foreign tourist are thrilled by the ride, saying it is better than Disneyland. Business travelers and local people are less excited. They often just take a taxi from the airport, saying that is more convenient than taking the maglev downtown and working out a taxi or public transportation from there to their hotels or homes. They also complain about the long walk to the airport maglev terminal, the inconvenient times of operation and say the route isn’t very well marked. Prices have been slashed by a third to encourage more people to take it but still many people opt for other forms of transport.

China considered using the maglev technology for the Beijing-Shanghai train route but abandoned the plan. The maglev system in Shanghai will be expanded to cities outside of Shanghai and may be used on the route between Beijing and Tianjin

The train was built by Siemans AG and ThysseKrup AG. The company received permission to expand the train line, possibly to Hangzhou and Nanjing. If that is true the train would cover 300 kilometers and be built at a cost of $5 billion.

Maglev Technology

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Maglev on the move

Maglev linear engines are powered by the interaction between superconducting magnets (made with a niobium-titanium alloy and cooled to near absolute zero with expensive liquid helium refrigeration systems) on the trains and magnets on the track. Each train magnet is simultaneously pushed by a magnet of the same polarity and pulled by a magnet of the opposite polarity on the side of the track. The polarity of the side magnets is constantly reversing and the speed in which they reverse determines the speed of the train.

The train floats, creating virtually no friction, which allows the train to travel so fast. The repulsion of magnets of the same polarity on the train and the bottom of the track lifts the train above the track. The ride in a maglev train feels like the ride in an airplane.

Problems with maglev trains include: 1) the incredible weight of the magnets and refrigeration systems, trains cars can weigh up to 100 tons; 2) the magnetic repulsion is inherently unstable because of the way the magnets repel one another so the guideway has to be perfectly smooth so the maglev train can float at a constant six inches above the track; 3) heavy shields are needed to protect passengers from the powerful magnets which can stop watches and pacemakers; 4) trains tend to move back and forth and up and down, an effect which can be dampened with shock absorbers.

Building a maglev line is very expensive. The main expense is the elevated concrete guideway with embedded aluminum loops and magnets. The cost of liquid helium used as a coolant to create superconductivity is also very expensive. For the train to reach ultra-high speeds the track must be straight, and curves must be banked like those on a bobsled course. Limiting factors that prevent the train from reaching higher speeds are air resistance and tunnels.

China Unveils Maglev Train That Can Go 620 kph (385 kph)

In January 2022, China’s state-owned railway company (CRRC) unveiled a prototype for a new high-speed Maglev train that is capable of reaching speeds of 620 kph (385 kph). According to Reuters: The maximum speed would make the train, self-developed by China and manufactured in the coastal city of Qingdao, the fastest ground vehicle globally. At 600 kph, it would only take 2.5 hours to travel from Beijing to Shanghai by train — a journey of more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). By comparison, the journey would take 3 hours by plane and 5.5 hours by high-speed rail.[Source: Reuters, July 20, 2021]

Researchers at China’s Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu debuted a refined 69-foot prototype in January 2022 along with a new 540-foot test track. Rachel Cormack wrote in the Robb Report: This new setup will give developers an idea of how the speed machine will look and feel in transit and allow the prototype to be tested extensively before going into production. It’s put China on the fast track to delivering the world’s quickest train.[Source: Rachel Cormack, Robb Report, January 27, 2021, 9:00 AM

“First announced in 2015, the pioneering project has been a collaborative effort between the CRRC, the Chinese government, research institutes, universities and some 30 businesses. The prototype is expected to reach 385 mph (620 km/h), though developers hope to eventually boost this speed to 497 mph (800km/h). That’s close to the Bombardier Global Express plane, which has a maximum speed of 548 mph.

“This means the blistering quick locomotive could eventually transport passengers between Beijing and Shanghai in just three and a half hours. For context, it would take around two and a half hours to cover the same distance in that Bombardier business jet.

“So, how does it actually work? Maglev trains are not a new concept and are already used in China, South Korea and Japan. As its moniker implies, the magnetic-levitation system uses magnets to push the train up off the track and propel it forward. This means the train actually floats around two inches off the rails and rides along a cushion of air. As such, maglev trains are both quicker and quieter than conventional trains. On top of that, since they don’t create direct emissions, they’re better for the planet, too.

“This particular prototype runs on high-temperature superconducting power, according to the South China Morning Post. The superconducting state occurs where electrical resistance approaches zero when cooled to a very low temperature and is key in making faster and more efficient maglev trains.

“Researchers told the local media that there are still issues to iron out before the new technology becomes commercially viable, but a production model could be here within six years. That would put China right on par with Japan. That nation is currently building a 314-mile-per-hour maglev line between Tokyo and Nagoya that is due to roll out in 2027. Who’s your money on?

China's New 'Air Train' — a Maglev That Hangs on Air 10 Meters above the Ground

In August 2022, China's unveiled a new 'air train' — a maglev that runs on an elevated track, never touching it, as it glides through the air 10 meters (30 feet) above the ground. The new train — called the Red Rail — has been described as the world's first suspended maglev train system. It uses permanent magnets and can operate without power, gliding through the air without ever making contact with the track above it. There's no rail underneath it either. [Source: Sarah Jackson, Business Insider, August 20, 2022]

According to Business Insider A new train just unveiled in China doesn't quite operate how you'd expect. Traditional maglev train systems use electromagnets, which require electric current to get things moving. The Red Rail is different. It uses permanent magnets that contain rare earth metals, of which China is the world's biggest supplier. This allows it to run without electricity. This also means it has the potential to save energy and be more environmentally friendly than many other modes of transportation. The train never has physical contact with the rail as it moves.

The Red Rail located in Xingguo county, Jiangxi province in southern China. Construction of the train was completed in August 2022, according to state-run media. The train still has to go through some test runs, one of which happened after construction concluded.

The Red Rail has two cars that can carry 88 passengers total. In the first experimental phase, on a 800 meter (2,620 foot) long track the train reach speeds of up to 80 kph (50 mph). Later, the plan is for the track to be extended to 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles). At that point, the train will also be able to travel as fast as 120 km per hour, or nearly 75 miles an hour.

Image Sources: Seat 61, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2022

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