New high-speed train on
on the Wuhan-Guangzhou route
China’s high-speed rail system only opened in 2007. Even so it is slated to be bigger than the high-speed train systems of rest of the world combined by 2013. China is now the proud possessor of the world's longest high-speed railway network, with a combined track length of 7,531 kilometers as of December 2010. Before the Wenzhou crash in July 2011 official plans call for the network to expand to 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) by 2012 and 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) by 2020.

As of early 2012 China had 13 high-speed railways in operation, with 26 under construction and 23 more planned. Much of the system, similar to that in Japan, is built on elevated tracks.A report by World Bank experts issued in February 2012 lauded China's success in rapidly expanding the system. That report said it was unclear whether the speed of the buildup had compromised safety, but noted that the Wenzhou accident showed there was "room for improvement." China is due to spend 400 billion yuan ($630 billion) in 2012 year on railway infrastructure, down from 469 billion yuan in 2011 and over 700 billion yuan in 2010. [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, March 12, 2012]

China’s $300 billion high-speed rail network and state-of-the-art bullet trains are at the heart of China's "leapfrog development” plan. China’s high-speed rail system is one of the world’s largest and most costly public works projects. China had 13 high-speed railways in operation as of 2011, with 26 under construction and 23 more planned, although approvals of new projects were frozen following the Wenzhou crash. The general budget estimate for the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railroad alone surpasses the entire budget for the Three Gorges Dam Project. Complaints about China's high-speed train program include the system’s high costs and pricey fares, the quality of construction and the allegation of self-dealing by a rail minister who was fired earlier this year on corruption grounds.

The World Bank estimated in a report last year that China spent $163 billion on the network from 2007 to 2009 and would spend another $100 billion in 2010, with the ultimate tab totaling some $300 billion. The high-speed railway network is a major part of the 4-trillion yuan economic stimulus package launched in late 2008 to combat the international financial crisis. At that time, officials of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) confidently proclaimed that it had the "resolute and methods" needed to prevent any of the money being misused. The NDRC now owes the Chinese public an explanation on how such huge amounts could apparently be pocketed by officials like Liu and Zhang. [Source: Wu Zhong, Asia Times, March 8, 2011]

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Interior of new high speed train
on the Wuhan-Guangzhou route

China spent more than $100 billion to build 12,000 kilometers of high speed railroad between 2005 and 2010. In 2005, work began on a 3,000 kilometer (1,900 mile) network of high speed trains capable of traveling between 200 and 300 kilometers per hour. The network will include lines between 1) Wuhan and Guangzhou; 2) Zhengzhou and Xian; 3) Beijing and Tianjin; 4) Hefei and Nanjing. The Wuhan-Guangzhou and Zhengzhou-Xian trains will be capable of traveling 300 kilometers per hour. In January 2010, Hong Kong approved an $8.6 billion high-speed rail link to China’s train network.

China Tests 500 Km/h Super High-speed Train

In December 2011, Reuters reported: China launched a super-rapid test train over the weekend which is capable of travelling 500 kilometers per hour, state media said on Monday, as the country moves ahead with its railway ambitions despite serious problems on its high-speed network.The train, made by a subsidiary of CSR Corp Ltd, China's largest train maker, is designed to resemble an ancient Chinese sword, the official Xinhua news agency reported. It "will provide useful reference for current high-speed railway operations," it quoted train expert Shen Zhiyun as saying. A launching ceremony was held in Qingdao, Shandong province. But future Chinese trains will not necessarily run at such high speeds, CSR chairman Zhao Xiaogang told the Beijing Morning News. "We aims to ensure the safety of trains operation," he said. [Source: Reuters, December 26, 2011]

In December 2010, a Chinese passenger train — the CRH-380A — achieved a record speed of 486 kph on a test run of the track between Beijing and Shanghai. The Chinese said that it the fastest speed recorded by an unmodified conventional commercial train, A specially modified French TGV reached 574.8 kph in a 2007 test. A Japanese maglev train reached 581 kph in 2003.

Railway official say they are working on technology to boost train speeds to 500 kph. The country's manufacturers seem positive that their trains will soon snap at the heels of the 574.8 km per hour world speed record set by France in 2007, an anonymous source with CSR Corporation, formerly known as the China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation, told the Xinhua News Agency Tuesday, during the seventh World Congress on High Speed Rail held in Beijing.

In December 2009, China unveiled what it said at the time was the fastest train in the world. It traveled between the southern economic hub of Guangzhou and the central city of Wuhan at an average speed of 350 kilometers per hour. A few days after it was introduced this train was brought to a screeching halt when a chain smoker lit up on a no-smoking train setting off a fire alarm, The train was still in a station and was stopped for 2½ hours while various safety checks were made.

China’s High-Speed Train Network

China didn’t open its first high-speed railway until 2008 but by some measures it will soon become the world leader in this form of transportation. According to the International Union of Railways by 2012 China will have 742 miles high speed railways in operation and 5,612 miles under construction, compared to 1,524 miles in operation and 367 miles under construction in Japan, 1,183 miles in operation and 186 miles under construction in France, and 994 miles in operation and 1,379 miles under construction in Spain. [Source: Washington Post]

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High-Speed Train Routes

Zhang Shuguang, the deputy chief engineer of China’s railway ministry, said in a speech last September 2010that the government planned 42 lines by 2012, with 5,000 miles of track for passenger trains at 215 miles an hour and 3,000 miles of track for passenger and fast freight trains traveling 155 miles an hour...By comparison, the United States hopes to build its first high-speed rail line by 2014, an 84-mile route linking Tampa and Orlando, Florida. Top speed on this line is supposed to be 168 miles an hour.

To avoid bulldozing urban neighborhoods, huge rail stations have been erected in industrial districts on the edge of cities. Subways to the stations are still being built in Guangzhou and Wuhan; passengers now take 40-minute bus rides from city centers.

Sometransportation experts predict that a few of the 42 routes may not be finished until 2013 or 2014 as the stimulus money dries up. One worry is whether China is overinvesting in high-speed trains that may require operating subsidies like those for maintaining highways: fares on a route from Beijing to Tianjin have been set lower than initially forecast to make sure they stay full.

New High-Speed Train Lines

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CRH1 high speed train

New Bullet-train-style train between Beijing and Tianjin in around half an hour and can reaches speeds of 120mph. Reserved seats cost about $5.50, double the price of slower trains that take about two hours. Improvements on the Guangzhou and Chongqing line have reduced the travel time from 28 hours to 21 hours.

The high-speed Chinese train that connects Guangzhou, the southern coastal manufacturing center, to Wuhan, deep in the interior, has the world’s fastest average speed. In a little more than three hours, it travels about 1,000 kilometers, comparable to the distance from Boston to southern Virginia. That is less time than Amtrak’s fastest train, the Acela, takes to go from Boston just to New York. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, February 12, 2010]

The Guangzhou-to-Wuhan high-speed trains has an average speed of up to 215 miles an hour. Heavily subsidized regular trains, which require 11 hours for the trip from Guangzhou to Wuhan, cost $20.50 one-way. The cheapest seat on the bullet train costs $72, or one to three weeks’ pay for an assembly line worker, and are only 18 inches wide. First class tickets in wider seats are $114. Most Chinese can’t afford these prices. The new trains leave 29 times a day for Wuhan from a mammoth new train station on the outskirts of Guangzhou that opened in January 2010. With soaring steel girders, white walls and enormous skylights far overhead, the station,Asia’s largest, resembles a major airport.

Bullet trains travel faster than a commercial jet at takeoff. They require extremely flat, straight routes. After a bullet train glides smoothly out of Guangzhou’s station and it takes less than four minutes be reach a a speed of more than 200 miles an hour. Amtrak’s Acela only briefly reaches its top speed of 150 miles an hour because it runs on old, curvy tracks that it shares with 12,000-ton freight trains.

A saying frequently heard in Guangzhou is: a resident can board a train in the morning, have lunch at historic Mount Yuelu in Changsha, dinner at the famous Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan and still come home and sleep in her own bed. A 9-year-old girl on the train told the New York Times, “I was scared to go on this train because it goes so fast, but now I’m not scared at all because it’s very stable and doesn’t wobble back and forth — before falling asleep on her tray table.

High speed trains are already competing with airlines, and airlines are losing customers When a new high-speed line opened up between Xian and Zhengzhou, airlines stopped all flights between the two cities as customers preferred the two-hour train ride costing to $57 to the 40-minute flight for $73. The three-hour train to Wuhan makes a quicker trip than the nearly two-hour flight, once faster train check-in times are accounted for.

Chinese High-Speed Train From Shanghai

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CRH2 high speed train

High-speed trains modeled after the Japanese Shinkansen began operation are part of the route between Shanghai and Hangzhou and Nanjing in January 2007. New trains service between Shanghai and Suzhou cover the 85 kilometers in 39 minutes. The distance between Shanghai and Hangzhou is 171 kilometers and between Shanghai and Nanjing is 303 kilometers. The trains are capable of going 250 kilometers per hour but only go 160 kph because that is the maximum speed the tracks can handle.

In October 2010, high-speed train service was launched between Shanghai and Hangzhou. The 200 kilometers distance between the cities is covered in 45 minutes. The CRH380 train, which operates on the line, has been clocked at almost 420 kph, a world record.. Although it will usually operate at a maximum speed of 350 kph.

In December 2010, Liu Zhijun, the Chinese Railways Minister, declared that the eastern and central areas of the country have known an "era of high-speed railway," which will spread to western regions in the next five years, according to a national development blueprint, the People's Daily website reported.

Beijing- Shanghai High-Speed Train

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Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train
The $80 billion Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line is the world's longest single high-speed connection. It creates a north-to-south artery with links to east-to-west rail lines at two dozen stations along the way. Designed to carry 80 million passengers a year, the Beijing-Shanghai line crosses seven provinces that include some of China's most densely populated and economically developed areas. In a statement, the Ministry of Railways said it made extensive preparations for safety and security. They include plans for daily inspections of tracks and other facilities and an earthquake monitoring system. [Source: AP, Will Clem, South China Morning Post, June 30, 2011]

The railway ministry says the Beijing-Shanghai line cost 215 billion yuan ($32.5 billion) — $25,500 a meter. The railway ministry says the line will run 63 pairs of trains a day at 300 kph (190 mph) and 27 at 250 kph (155 mph). Ticket prices range from 1,750 yuan ($269) for a business class seat on the fastest train to 410 yuan ($63) for second-class on slower trains, compared to about 1,300 yuan for a flight. The initial plan was for 90 bullet trains a day in each direction. Originally there were plans to accelerate speed to 220 miles per hour by the summer of 2012, if the first year of operation goes smoothly. Even at the initial speeds, the new trains will take less than five hours to cover a distance comparable to New York to Atlanta — which requires nearly 18 hours on Amtrak. The new trains are expected to provide stiff competition for airlines, whose the two-hour Beijing-Shanghai flights are subject to notorious delays, often caused by thunderstorms.

Work on the line began in April 2008 and was not originally scheduled to be completed until next year. Then the global financial crisis kicked in and construction work was accelerated as the government's stimulus package channeled 4 trillion yuan into capital projects. The final stretch of track was laid in November 2010, just 31 months after the first foundations were dug. Construction was supposed to start much earlier and it was originally hoped the rail line would be completed for the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 but that didn’t happen partly because of delays caused by controversies over which technology to use and high costs. The project was expected to take five to 10 years to complete and cost $22.5 billion when the cost for real estate and resettlement are factored in.

Initial tests in December 2010 set a record speed of 486.1 kilometres per hour, smashing the previous best for a conventional train of 416.6km/h, set during tests on the Shanghai-Hangzhou line. In January, the train recorded a new world's fastest speed at 486.3 km/h in a trial run. Mainland media made no attempt to hide their pride in the "domestic" high-speed rail technology that, although reliant on imported hardware, was then running faster than Japanese, Korean and European counterparts.

It was originally intended that trains on the Beijing-Shanghai route would complete the 1,318-kilometre journey in less than four hours, with trains running at speeds of 350 kilometres per hour or more. Instead, trains will run at maximum speeds of either 300km/h or 250km/h, adding at least an hour to the trip. Although ministry officials have insisted the measure was taken to increase energy efficiency and allow for tickets to be more affordable, there have been widespread suggestions teh decision was prompted by safety fears.

Opening of the New High-Speed Train between Beijing and Shanghai

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Inside Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train
On June 30, 2011, the China Daily reported, “High-speed trains linking Beijing and Shanghai made their passenger, extending China's high-speed rail network to nearly 10,000 km. Premier Wen Jiabao attended the railway's opening ceremony at Beijing South Railway Station and boarded the first train to Shanghai. The high-speed line was built in only 38 months and opened to traffic one year ahead of schedule.” [Source: China Daily, July 1, 2011]

“Launched on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, the railway started operations with a sleek-nosed white train leaving promptly at 3 pm from the station's No 1 platform for Shanghai. The line, designed for speeds of 350 km/h but running initially at 300 km/h, halves the travel time between the country's two main cities to just four hours and 48 minutes.

The fast link will be able to carry 80 million passengers a year - double the current capacity on the 1,318-kilometer route - and frees up the old line for the transportation of goods. "The train will reshape China's future economic dynamics," Zhang Xingchen, deputy president of Beijing Jiaotong University, said. As it is able to compete with airlines in terms of comfort, service and journey time, it will change people's travel habits, he said. In response, airlines have slashed some ticket prices by up to 65 percent to 400 yuan, the cost of the cheapest rail pass, according to travel website ctrip.com. Experts estimate that the high-speed railway will take 20 to 30 percent of passengers from airlines.

Tickets for the first trains - scheduled to leave Beijing South and Shanghai Hongqiao stations simultaneously at 3:00pm - sold out within 2-1/2 hours on Friday. The 1,750-yuan VIP tickets apparently sold out even more quickly than the cheap seats, as rail fans raced to be among the first to experience high-speed super luxury. It was a different story for many of the 21 other trains running the route on the opening day, with scores of seats still available on almost all of them.

Riding on the New High-Speed Train between Beijing and Shanghai

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Zefiro 380 train used on the
high-speed Beijing- Shanghai route
Describing the ride, Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “Just outside Beijing, with the speedometer already at 278km/h, the driver's white-gloved hand shifts imperceptibly forward on the throttle. The pitch of the engines lifts a tiny fraction. Tea ripples minutely in its cup. From the carriage windows...the provinces pass in a magnificent blur. But one constant is the farmland, cleaved without compromise as the track makes its direct charge at Shanghai. This is a country that can do straight lines. Land can be requisitioned, peasants bought off. [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London, June 28, 2011]

On board, the train is equally crafted as a global benchmark of progress. First Class seats, at about $130, are priced to compete exactly with an air fare, but with the promise (unfulfilled on this trip) of mobile phone and wi-fi access throughout the journey. Beyond First Class is Business Class, a nod, perhaps, to the wealth-makers of 21st-century China who need flatbed seats and armrest TV screens.

"The high-speed train is fast and more comfortable than a plane, as I can move around and it provides sockets for charging my laptop," 30-year-old Cheng Yu, a businesswoman from Beijing, told the China Daily. She usually flies to Shanghai, said. She bought a train ticket online this time to experience the speed. "The service on the train is as good as on the plane. If they improve the food and prepare pills for people like me who feel a little dizzy at first, I would consider zipping between Beijing and Shanghai by train from now on," she said. [Source: China Daily, July 1, 2011]

The China Daily reported: “The train attracted many fans who avidly snapped photos of every detail to share with friends online - from signs to handlebars and especially the display panel recording the speed. Train enthusiast Piao Qichao, 26, said any memorabilia from the train or journey was worth collecting. He even bought another train ticket, from Beijing to Langfang, just to keep as a souvenir.”

Economic Impact of China’s High-Speed Trains

Chinese officials believe improved passenger and freight services are also crucial to development. “China's railway service has long fallen short of demand,” Li Heping, a researcher at the China Academy of Railway Sciences, told the state news agency Xinhua. “There are two solutions: building more railways and raising the train speed.”

In 2010, according to the Washington Post, China invested $120 billion in high-sped railways. By one estimate construction of China’s rail system uses 20 million tons of steel and 120 million tons of concrete a year and provides 6 million jobs.

Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times,”The web of superfast trains promises to make China even more economically competitive, connecting this vast country — roughly the same size as the United States — as never before, much as the building of the Interstate highway system increased productivity and reduced costs in America a half-century ago. As China upgrades and expands its rail system, it creates the economies of large-scale production for another big export industry. The sheer volume of equipment that they will require, and the technology that will have to be developed, will simply catapult them into a leadership position, said Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s vice president for policy and development. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, February 12, 2010]

Building China’s High-Speed Trains

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Beijing-Tianjin train
“China’s lavish new rail system is a response to a failure of central planning...After China joined the World Trade Organization in November 2001, exports and manufacturing soared. Electricity generation failed to keep up because the railway ministry had not built enough rail lines or purchased enough locomotives to haul the coal needed to run new power plants.” [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, February 12, 2010]

“By 2004, the government was turning off the power to some factories up to three days a week to prevent blackouts in residential areas.Officials drafted a plan to move much of the nation’s passenger traffic onto high-speed routes by 2020, freeing existing tracks for more freight. Then the global financial crisis hit in late 2008. Faced with mass layoffs at export factories, China ordered that the new rail system be completed by 2012 instead of 2020, throwing more than $100 billion in stimulus at the projects...Administrators mobilized armies of laborers — 110,000 just for the 820-mile route from Beijing to Shanghai.”

“Soaring tax revenue, a national savings rate of 40 percent and laborers who earn less than $100 a month help make high-speed rail affordable to build in China. Even with cheap labor, the Wuhan-Guangzhou line cost $17 billion (116.6 billion renminbi); it has so many tunnels through mountains that at times it feels like a subway.”

High-Speed Train Manufacturing in China

Investments in high-speed railways is expected to yield pay-offs beyond improved transportation in China . Beijing hopes to develop the technology for trains and railways and export it around the world. China has offered to build high-speed railroads in California, Brazil and other places. Giving it an edge over rivals from Japan, France, Germany and South Korea is its ability to offer financing with interest as low as one percent. [Source: Washington Post]

State-owned CSR Sifang is a major producer of high-speed trains in China. It has a sprawling plant in the city of Qindao with 7,000 workers, 2,000 of them engineers and designers, that produced sleek trains capable of going 217 mph and is testing models that can go 236 mph. The company is already negotiating with potential costumers in Thailand, Singapore, the Middle East and the United States.

Politics and High-Tech Trains in China

France, Germany and Japan fought hard to win bids to build the Beijing-Nanjing-Shanghai high-speed railroad. In the early 2000s, the government said that it was 90 percent sure who it was going to choose but the reaction in the press and among ordinary Chinese was so negative the government decided to look at the issue again. When ground was broken in the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway in April 2008 no Japanese, French or German companies were named.

The three main competitors were: 1) a six company Japanese consortium, including Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi and Hitachi, offering an upgraded version of the Hayate Shinkansen.; 2) Germany’s industrial giant Siemens AG, which was trying to sell the high-speed InterCity Express trains; and 3) France’s Alstom SA, the French industrial firm that markets the TGV trains.

Competition for contracts was steeped in politics and diplomacy, with China trying to spread the business around to make everyone at least a little happy. In October 2004, China agreed to pay $1.4 billion for 480 coaches to form 60 trains, capable of going 200 kilometers per hour on existing tracks. A total of $800 million went to Kawasaki Heavy Industries and the rest went to French and Canadian companies. China at one time said it would buy 60 Hayate Shinkansen trains from Japan and 60 ICE trains from Germany’s Siemens AG but no French TGV trains

China produced its first domestically-developed, high-speed bullet train in December 2007. Capable of reaching speeds of 300 kph, the streamlined train boasts a lightweight, aluminum alloy body and will be used on the 115-kilometer line between Beijing and Tianjin. The eight-carriage train seats 600 passengers and should be operational before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the cut the travel between Beijing and Tianjin from 80 minutes to 30 minutes.

Chinese High-Speed Trains and Foreign Deals

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Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
riding a high-speed train in 2011
China has started building railway tracks in Turkey, and has tried to make inroads in the United States, Russia, Britain and Brazil, among other countries. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, expressed his interest in China's high-speed railway expertise during his visit in September 2010. The rail ministry and companies including China Railway Construction Corp. are among more than 900 firms that have expressed interest in bidding on work to build the planned 616- mile (991-kilometer) high-speed train line linking San Francisco and San Diego. A line under construction in Turkey is the showpiece for China Civil Engineering Corp, which hopes to win projects elsewhere in Europe.

Elaine Kurtenbach of AP wrote: “Chinese companies are vying for projects overseas, including in the U.S., which leads the world in freight railway technology but has almost no high-speed rail expertise. That's a mark of how well and quickly the technology has been adopted by Chinese companies, who have traditionally only been able to compete on price in bidding for railway and other basic infrastructure projects in the developing world.” [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, October 26, 2010]

In December 2010, it was revealed that China’s CSR Corporation and the General Electric (GE) would sign a framework agreement to collaborate on expanding high-speed railway networks in the U.S. Set to create 250 jobs in the US by 2012, the $50 million investment would first focus on railway projects in Florida and California, according to Xinhua. This is part of a raft of investments worth $2 billion that GE has negotiated with Chinese partners, as part of what GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt called his company's "long-term commitment to China." [Source: Liu Linlin and Zou Le, Global Times, December 8, 2010]

Japanese train makers, which are China's major competitor in the US bids, pointed safety as their main concern. "I know that China is very advanced in high-speed rail, but you should never sacrifice speed for safety," Haruo Hirata, deputy general-manager of Technical Research and Development Department of West Japan Railway Company, told the Global Times Tuesday.

Kunming-Singapore High-Speed Railway

The Kunming-Singapore High-Speed Railway began construction in April 2011, the People’s Daily reported. “The railway will shorten the travel time between Kunming and Singapore to only a little more than 10 hours in the future. The Chinese government expects the railway to be put into operation by 2020. The line, starting from Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province; passes Mohan, a border town with Laos; and Wangrong, a popular Chinese tourist city; and ends in Vientiane, capital of Laos. Construction of the Mohan Railway Logistics Center has already started.” [Source: People’s Daily, April 25, 2011]

“According to the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Trans-Asian Railway Network, the Kunming-Singapore High-Speed Railway, which is in fact the central line of the southeast part of the Trans-Asian Railway Network, will also pass Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and end in Singapore, with a total distance of 3,900 kilometers. Once completed, it will take passengers a little more than 10 hours to travel between Kunming and Singapore by train.”

“Chen Tiejun, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies under the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, said that the Trans-Asian Railway Network has a far-reaching impact on countries in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) occupies an increasingly important strategic position due to the acceleration of ASEAN integration. The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area has removed man-made trade barriers, but the removal of natural barriers will require the construction of the Trans-Asian Railway Network and other infrastructure.”

“The railway network will facilitate the movement of goods and people, improve the efficiency of economic activities, and help create a more peaceful and stable geopolitical environment. After the Trans-Asian Railway Network is completed, Vietnam and Cambodia will be linked with Thailand and Myanmar by train, and China will have a closer political and economic relationship with countries in the Mekong River Basin where the total population has reached 300 million people. Furthermore, energy and goods that Japan and South Korea need can also be transported to both countries through this railway network of global significance.

Maglev Trains in China

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Shanghai's maglve train

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 and Protests in China

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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.

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.

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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