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
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.
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 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 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.