China MagLev Train Aspirations Boosted By New 600 Km/h Design

Maglev trains have long been touted as the new dawn for train technology. Despite keen and eager interest in the mid-20th century, development has been slow, and only limited commercial operations have ever seen service. One of the most well-known examples is the Shanghai Maglev Train which connects the airport to the greater city area. The system was purchased as a turnkey installation from Germany, operates over a distance of just 30.5 km, and according to Civil Engineering magazine cost $1.2 billion to build in 2001. Ever since, it’s served as a shining example of maglev technology — and a reminder of difficult and expensive maglev can be.

However, China has fallen in love with high-speed rail transport in the last few decades and has invested heavily. With an aggressive regime of pursuing technology transfers from foreign firms while building out the world’s largest high-speed rail network, the country has made great progress. Now, Chinese rail transit manufacturer, CRRC Corporation, have demonstrated their newest maglev train, which hopes to be the fastest in the world.

It’s Gonna Be Quick

Improved L0 Series maglev train on its test rack in Japan. [Image by Saruno Hirobano CC-BY-SA 4.0]
The aim is to build a maglev train that is capable of speeds up to 600 km/h, which would slash long-distance travel times between major Chinese cities. Such a train would slot neatly in between existing high-speed rail services, which travel at around 350 km/h, and airliners, which travel at around 800-900 km/h. On the crucial Beijing-Shanghai route, travel time could fall from 5.5 hours by train to just 2.5 to 3.5 hours by maglev, depending on who you talk to. That’s only marginally slower than air travel, which takes about 2.5 hours, and that’s ignoring the more arduous security and boarding procedures that are typical when flying.

600km/h is devastatingly fast, and is roughly equal to the current speed record held by the Japanese L0 Series maglev prototype, which achieved 603 km/h on a test track in 2015. The L0 Series holds the current record, and is intended to operate at a speed of 500 km/h in service on the Tokyo-Nagoya line, due to open in 2027.

A maglev train at Longyang Station, Shanghai.

China’s new maglev design, known as the CRRC 600, was first publicised back in 2019. Expected to enter service in 5 to 10 years, it’s a further development of the technology used in the existing Shangai airport link. That train was a turnkey operation bought from German company Transrapid, which has been developing maglev train technology for decades. Our own Mike Szczys travelled on that very system in 2019, which reaches speeds of up to 430km/h in peak hour. CRRC has continued to develop the technology under licence from the owners of Transrapid, Thyssen-Krupp. There has also been discussion of the Chinese operation reopening the original Transrapid test track in Emsland, Germany, which was shut down five years after a fatal accident in 2006.

The Technology

A Transrapid prototype on the test track at its home in Germany. [Source]
The Transrapid technology is about as different as possible from conventional railway technology. There are no wheels, and no pantographs to transmit electricity. The train relies on the electromagnetic suspension principle, where powerful electromagnets are used to levitate the vehicle. In the case of the Transrapid, the train has arms which wrap around the guide track with magnets mounted underneath, which are pulled upwards towards the underside of the track. The idea with magnetic levitation is to float the vehicle relative to the track with no direct contact, so a powerful control system is used to carefully maintain the gap between the train and the guide rails by varying the electric current through the train’s levitation coils. Propulsion is via the active guideway linear motor concept. This uses coils in the guideway which are energized in turn to create a travelling magnetic field to push the train along.

The Business Case

The Shanghai Maglev was China’s first step in maglev technology. [Source]
The benefits of maglev are decreased noise, higher speeds, and better efficiency by eliminating the friction of wheels running on steel rails. Other than the nascent state of the technology, the primary drawback is cost. It’s not easy to put a number on, though one highly-critical US report cited that maglev can be 1.5 times as costly as regular high-speed rail.  The total budget for the Shangai Maglev project was about $1.2 billion for a 30.5 km run, or about $39.3 million per kilometer (including the cost of the two stations). The usual cost of fast rail in China is estimated between $17 and $21 million per kilometer.

The problem is, merely looking at the face value build cost is a poor analysis technique when it comes to transportation systems. Something often forgotten is that a train that travels twice as fast can, theoretically, carry twice as many passengers in the same amount of time. Turnarounds and efficiencies never scale perfectly, but that value must be taken into account. Additionally, dealing with things like steep grades and property acquisition can wildly skew costs from one project, or even one section of track, to another. Other potential bonuses of maglev technology involve lower maintenance costs, due to the non-contact operation of the railway reducing wear. Indeed, in the case of South Korea’s low-speed Incheon maglev railway, the authorities involved claimed the system was significantly cheaper overall than a traditional railway.

Next-Gen Ground Transport Trying to Break Through

Concerns of cost and profitability have kept high speed rail, let alone maglev, from gaining a foothold in places like the US and Australia, despite the potential gains from linking distant cities with something less fussy and more efficient than air travel. Maglev has also vanished from Europe despite Britain and Germany being early pioneers of the technology.

However, China, which is less bothered by such short-sighted concerns, is able to forge ahead with its nation-building project. Lines from Shanghai to Hangzhou and Guangzhou-Shenzhen are likely to be the next candidates to receive maglev lines. These could be amongst the first intercity maglev lines in the world along with the Japanese efforts, and will serve as an important bellwether as for the viability of the technology going forward. If early steps prove successful, expect maglev railways to stretch across China in record time, in much the same vein as high speed rail in the last two decades.

65 thoughts on “China MagLev Train Aspirations Boosted By New 600 Km/h Design

    1. I’m wondering the same thing, what’s the power cost to levitating? The article mentions a low speed maglev in South Korea, that should offer a fairly good comparison to a regular electric train if you pick a service of relativley similar speed and weight. So how much difference is there in power usage between the two?

      1. Once it is moving could you use the air flow to maintain most of the lift? Then the magnetic bit becomes a fine adjustment.

        Secondly, there is virtually no wear on the track, so maintenance costs are much lower.

      2. The power needed to levitate is a small fraction of what is needed to propel the train.

        The Chinese system looks like electromagnetic suspension, which is an interesting choice. The big advantage is that it works at all speeds, the train can levitate even when stationary. It will have some kind of landing gear but it will be a simple set of skids or something, only used when the train is turned off.

        The downside is that it’s an unstable system that requires active feedback to constantly adjust the magnetic forces and keep the train on the track.

        The Japanese system uses electrodynamic suspension that is inherently stable. The downside is that it doesn’t work below about 30 kph so it needs wheels that come down like an aircraft landing gear for when it arrives at a station.

    2. Well, magnetic fields can’t do work. It costs nothing to hold it in place. The lifting and lowering take energy. I’m sure there are various losses but air friction must be the major portion of the power budget. Drag increases as the square of velocity.

    1. Article:
      “With an aggressive regime of pursuing technology transfers from foreign firms while building out the world’s largest high-speed rail network, the country has made great progress.”

    2. OK I didn’t read this part of the article: “The system was purchased as a turnkey installation from Germany, …” So the operative word here is ‘purchased” as in commerce/trade. My bad.

  1. “That’s only marginally slower than air travel, which takes about 2.5 hours, and that’s ignoring the more arduous security and boarding procedures that are typical when flying.”

    I’m imagining the procedure in Minority Report. Smile for the camera.

    1. “ignoring the more arduous security and boarding procedures”

      I don’t think the author has taken a long distance train in China. The bigger railway stations are already like airports, with security checks, luggage scans, and departure lounges.

        1. Yes! I remember that when I was working in Shanghai. While in Japan, I bought a Samurai sword set for my son. Customs at the Airport picked it up while scanning the luggage. I was interrogated for about 15 minutes after finally explaining I was buying the set for my son. However I was flying into Shanghai and that is when I had to leave the swords in custody of Chinese custom while I remained in the Country. I did get them back three month later when I came back to the States.

    2. Shanghai maglev has a bag xray security system but is much less strict than their airports. No full security check. (That was in 2008-2010 – may have changed since then).

  2. I’m not sure if I’d ride a Chinese made maglev train. I’ve ridden the Shanghai maglev a couple of times, but it was designed and made by a German outfit. Maybe because it is such high profile, the CCP will make sure they have the best people on it, but that hasn’t always helped…

        1. Which didn’t have anything to do with the transrapid technology, it was only caused by human error. Running regular trains into maintenance trucks at max speed usually also doesn’t end too well…

      1. Germany is famous for being overly regulated and secure.
        If there is something you can blame Germans for, then it is to not being good at capitalizing on ideas and bringing them to market. Safety is definitely a strength of Germany, with all the downsides it has.

        On the flip side, safety is not a strength of China. Just remember the many issues with their space program. Just in may they were worried their rocket debris would hit populated areas, in fact, they had no idea where they would land. NASA commented: “It’s clear that China is failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris”.

        Nobody is free from mistakes, but general attitudes towards safety affect the outcomes significantly.

    1. It’s quite a leap to go from finally being able to make an entirely domestic ballpoint pen (until 2017, the quality of Chinese metallurgy was so lacking that they relied entirely on countries like Japan to manufacture the components) to a 600km/h maglex in 4 short years.

      1. Too funny. Have you been doing a lot of walking? I think you would have a hard time unless you have been active at walking. That’s a great distance. Soo tell us more.

      1. A Transrapid test train crashed in September 2006 into a maintenance vehicle on the track, which was an operational procedure error, not a flaw in the technology. No train should be running while there are people working on the track.

    2. You do realise a lot if not most of every western high speed rail, relies on Chinese built components right?
      So if the quality is still poor in your mind, then why do you use your Chinese built phones from Apple or Samsung etc, you Chinese built PC components and so on…
      Heck most cars have Chinese built components for safety critical parts, yet we have some of the safest roads in the world in the West…

  3. I myself have long wondered about the sustainability of these types of trains.

    Magnetic levitation is after all not magic, it requires magnets either in the train or on the track, and generally some form of superconductor for the other. So either there is hundreds of km of track that needs fairly constant cooling, or there is hundreds of km of track built of relatively expensive and resource intensive materials. Either or, non of these two are particularly sustainable.

    Though, one could just ask the question if a larger wheel diameter on normal trains wouldn’t achieve similar benefits. After all, a larger wheel generally has a larger contact area, can ride over larger gaps with less issues, and also doesn’t wear as much on the track infrastructure. All though, it is still steel on steel rolling resistance at play.

    But in most resources I have read, rolling resistance really isn’t the major source of energy loss on a train, but rather the air resistance. And at these high speeds, air resistance surely isn’t smaller than rolling resistance.

    In the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if maglev is generally driven by hype.

    1. Maybe I misunderstood you, but for the type of maglev discussed in my reference video, the tracks don’t require permanent magnets. The coils used for levitation are passive. The coils used for linear acceleration do require power, also there’s a third set of coils (also powered) that’s not used for movement, but to wirelessly transfer power to the train’s electrical systems.

      The train’s superconducting magnets don’t need power once they’re charged (a nice property of superconducting magnets) but you still need to refrigerate them.


      I do wonder about your last point. The speed record of steel rail trains is almost the same as maglev (574 vs 603 km/h) but looking at actual commercial operation no train goes above 350kmh, except from the shangai transrapid (maglev, 430km/h) Even the maglev shinkansen is only 3rd, and beaten by a conventional train. Seems like trains have their true top speed limited in the sake of practicality, comfort and safety.


      1. Yes, there is other methods of magnetic levitation, but that largely doesn’t change the main argument.

        Though, a lot of conventional trains are likely held back by simple physics. As a wheel’s diameter gets smaller, the forces to maintain the same surface speed will increase. And why I question if regular trains couldn’t solve a lot of the problems by simply increasing the wheel diameter by a bit.

        Then there is the stability issues of trains, a wider wheel base would be more stable and standard gauge is fairly narrow compared to the trains running on them, works fine at modest speeds but for high speed it isn’t ideal.

        Though, a lot of the problems with other alternative tracks is the same, maglev circumnavigates the wheel diameter issue, and track gauge can be set arbitrarily to suit the application since it is a new system that doesn’t have to be interoperable with an older network.

        To be fair, if a few “minor” amendments were made to rail infrastructure, then the safe operating speeds on a lot of routes would likely increase by a noticeable bit.

        For an example moving over to maybe 2500mm (“nice” round number) track gauge instead of 1435mm, it would aid with stability in corners by a decent amount, without really needing too much alterations to structural gauge surrounding the tracks. Though, increasing the minimum bend radius for the tightest curves would also be somewhat beneficial, and would be needed if switching to a wider gauge.

        So I can understand why people can look at maglev and such and hype it as a cool solution. While if a regular train did logical improvements, people would condemn it as a failure due to issues with interoperability.

        In the end, maybe it is time for a new wider standard gauge? Something to slowly transition to over the next 50-100 years. (with some period of “required interoperability”. (ie, dual gauge track))

        Even slow freight trains would benefit from the increased stability. And larger wheel diameters means support for a larger axel load, another benefit.

        1. Making them even heavier means they would be even noisier. Actually maglev would be great for freight trains to reduce the noise pollution for people living close by, which is a serious health issue.

    2. A rail wheel being larger does bring some benefits – but being larger it cuts into the internal volume available, probably forces carriages to be shorter – as the bogies can’t turn as far (or fast with all that extra mass), and/or would probably make the aerodynamics vastly worse! While still not doing anything about rail and wheel wear.

      Remember much like a hovercraft the actual force needed at any one spot need not be large to lift the train – its potentially a very large area holding the same load. So how many exotic materials and how much energy it must consume doesn’t have to be that huge.

      The real thing with any really high speed is how sharp your corners can be, as that defines how far out of your way you have to go to build the track able to really run at that speed, or how much you have to slow to take the shortest path – and maglev wins that by a great margin usually, able to go faster for the same curve.

      1. Yes, larger wheels do have downsides. But there is other limiting factors for high speed rail as well.

        One fairly subtle thing is the track gauge. A wider gauge tends to be more stable at higher speeds compared to a narrower gauge. Not to mention that a wider gauge also means more space between the wheels for the interior of the train.

        It would be interesting to see what an ideal (from an engineering standpoint) high speed train would look like. I suspect standard gauge wouldn’t be used, but instead something a fair bit wider, likely well over 2m to be fair. (Also, the train doesn’t have to be wider for the gauge to be wider. Trains are currently upwards of 3400 mm wide despite the track gauge being less than half of that.)

        In regards to the tightness of corners, yes, larger wheels would have some disadvantages here. But a lot of higher speed rail is fairly straight other than at the occasional siding. (improvements in the infrastructure is though always needed at some point or another.)

        I personally don’t think maglev seems like a competent solution as far as high speed rail is concerned.

        Though, I also don’t think trains only should focus on speed, there is a lot of other factors that they can consider to make the experience better for their commuters. Trains have a major advantage over air in terms of luggage capacity and leg room, since space and weight are relatively cheap in comparison to air travel.

        But having a few higher speed, straighter, long distance runs isn’t a bad idea for a rail network as a whole.

        1. ‘Ideal’ is all relative – the best railway for the awkward twisty mountainous hilly terrain is probably a narrow gauge track with smaller than standard loading gauge – it will not be able to travel as fast but it can go very much more directly at a sane construction cost than a standard rail gauge, so its cheaper to build, and still quite possibly provides faster trips as it doesn’t have to go so far out of its way to be practical…

          Then you have to ask what load are you carrying? If the goal is 100 people, or 10 ton of cargo in the ‘standard’ train length it can be much narrower and more aerodynamic than a train aiming to carry multiple times that. Also do people have to stand? Making the train seated only with bubble canopies over each seat means lower centre of gravity, less drag so the train can run faster on the same track.

          Are you a stopping service? In which case top speed attainable will have little to do with the actual maximum speed and more to do with acceleration/deceleration between those stops, where a longer distance shuttle like say crossing Aus from the east to the west only stopping at the really major cities could, assuming there is nothing else in the way on the line, just keep accelerating for hours if it had the engine power to do so, and that top speed would make for the fastest service, doesn’t much matter how long it takes to get there you will be spending more than long enough running flat out…

          Also worth pointing out that just because some places like America have massive loading gauges to their rail gauge not everywhere does – the UK for instance other than the bits inherited from Great Western’s wide gauge are all really damn narrow lines (barely bigger than the rail gauge levels of narrow), but running the nearly ubiquitous globally ‘standard gauge’..

  4. In the 1800s railroad grade steel was expensive and resource intensive but we laid thousands of miles of it anyway.

    Yes why don’t we use enormous tires for cars, roads have even bigger gaps and flaws than rails.

    Do you have actual numbers for train air resistance or are you just making things up?

  5. And in Northern England, there will be a new mini bus service every third Tuesday, taking a circuitous route through the villages. An essential service linking several tea rooms with their respective customers. Who needs high speed when they natter and knit?

  6. “At low speeds the percentage of power used for levitation can be significant, consuming up to 15% more power than a subway or light rail service.[78] For short distances the energy used for acceleration might be considerable.

    The force used to overcome air drag increases with the square of the velocity and hence dominates at high speed” [1]

    Old tomas sez “folks, learn to use Wikipedia. It’s worth it”



      1. > However power increases by the cube of the velocity. For example, 2.37 times as much power is needed to travel at 400 km/h (250 mph) than 300 km/h (190 mph), while drag increases by 1.77 times the original force

  7. The future of train is HPV (Human Powered Vehicule), if every passenger pedals, you can go to the speed of 100 km/h with no energy required (exept a big plate of garlic and chili spaghetti).

        1. Those who can’t or don’t want to pedal can pay full rate tickets, and the one who gave the more watts gets a free ride ;o).
          It can be electricaly assisted for the start, and regenerate on braking.

  8. One major aspect that makes maglev problematic is that the infrastructure is incompatible with existing train infrastructure.
    Why is this important? Suppose you have a blockage on one maglev track. In conventional high-speed rail (unless not integrated in the existing network), you can reroute traffic around the blockage. This will disturb traffic a lot, but not break it completely. Also it helps you manage where your trains are. In any proposed maglev network so far (generally only single lines, often avoiding switches because they are complex in maglev) you cannot do that.

    So, indeed: Just looking at upfront cost is not the whole story. Often operational restrictions are a big problem.
    Maglev is cool, but it was tried again and again and failed for the same, very boring reasons (generally not cost).

  9. There’s actually a very small section of maglev in Southwest Beijing; I took a day trip literally just to ride it when there in 2019. It was… Underwhelming. From what I heard it was a tiny remnant of a much larger maglev plan for the city with the problem being that on such short lengths it can’t accelerate to the speeds where it becomes useful. The “conventional” high speed rail to Tianjin on the other hand was much more impressive. 200 kilometers in about 30 minutes!

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