China’s Maglev Train Faster Than Airplanes?

Earlier this year, China showed off its latest high-tech gadgetry, a prototype maglev (magnetic levitation) train that is slated for production in 2021.

The new floating bullet train was designed by China’s biggest train manufacturer and rolled off the assembly line in the eastern Chinese city of Qingdao. Built to reach a top speed of 373 miles per hour (600 kilometers per hour), the sleek engineering is the product of China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC).

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China has been tinkering around with maglev since 2003, where electromagnets using alternating current simultaneously pull the train from the front and push it from the rear. Hovering about 4 inches (10cm) above the tracks, the maglev does not need to be fitted with wheels or traditional rolling stock technology.

The reduction in friction between conventional wheels and the guiding track is significantly reduced, allowing for much faster speeds. CRRC is working ceaselessly to improve its levitation and traction technology.

Trains that travel on a magnetically powered cushion of air have won China the distinction of operating the world’s fastest commercial maglev train service, racing along at 267mph. The route connects the Shanghai Pudong International Airport and the city center.

Ding Sansan, CRRC Deputy Chief Engineer, explained that the latest maglev train travels so fast that it could carry passengers faster than a commercial plane:

“Take Beijing to Shanghai as an example. Counting preparation time for the journey, it takes about 4.5 hours by plane, about 5.5 hours by high-speed rail, and about 3.5 hours with high-speed maglev.”

(The math there is a bit uncertain since an airplane typically cruises along around 550 mph. Perhaps he was taking into account waiting for the airport baggage carousel?)

Ding revealed that his engineering team had come up with a lightweight and high-strength train body that became the technical foundation for the development of five sets of maglev engineering prototypes.

CRRC built a three-mile track to test out its maglev train in late 2016. More than a year earlier, in April 2015, Japan had unveiled a maglev train capable of reaching a top speed of 375 mph (603 km/h), shattering the previous world record that had stood for 12 years.

The stated goal of CRRC was “establishing domestic technology and standard systems for new-generation medium- and high-speed maglev transportation that can be applied globally,” according to Sun Bangcheng, a CRRC official.

That year, the Chinese government ponied up $538 billion to fund maglev train technology in the quest for the world’s fastest locomotive.

The interiors of the CRRC train cars look stylish and comfortable, with oversized armchair seats. The lines and detailing are sleek and futuristic. Overhead compartments resemble those found on passenger airplanes.

The production schedule for the latest high-speed Chinese maglev train has moved up from initial projects that the technology wouldn’t be commercially viable until 2017 due to infrastructure and costs required to construct the long tracks.

As of 2016, China was the global leader in high-speed train lines, boasting 12,427mi (20,000km) of track. The national network of high-speed rail links is anticipated to expand to 18641mi (30,000km) by 2020 and 45,000 by 2030.

Based in Beijing, CRRC is the world’s largest rolling stock manufacturer with a whopping 175,700 employees. The company has additional high-speed train projects in the United Kingdom, Australia, Southeast Asia, Iran, Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, Indonesia, and Russia. One innovation under development is the ability for a zipping train to change between different track gauges, facilitating international border crossings.

Maglev technology was the brainchild of English inventor Eric Laithwaite who, in 1984, made the train commercially viable in Birmingham. This unprecedented maglev train covered a distance of 1,968 feet (600 meters) with a top speed of a modest 26 mph (42km/h).

On March 4, 2016, the United States Air Force set the world speed record for maglev, clocked at 633 mph at Holloman’s Air Force Base in New Mexico. The video is indeed impressive as yellowish-green flames shoot out the back of a specialized sled. A distance equal to seven football fields was achieved in about two seconds.

Yet, the U.S. doesn’t seem all that interested in competing with other countries over who can build the fastest speeding bullet train:

“Japan has the Shinkansen. France has the TGV. Spain has AVE. China has more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined. America has…the Acela Express. All 16 stops of it in one section of the country. It reaches its top speed of 150 miles per hour (241 kph) just for a few minutes in one short section, and even that speed is pokey compared to other countries.”

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