Slower maglev trains pick up steam in China
Cities across country building economical, quiet alternatives to subways
SHUNSUKE TABETA, Nikkei staff writer
BEIJING -- Lower-speed maglev train networks are springing up across China as the homegrown technology offers an economical urban transit alternative to subways.
Infrastructure developer China Railway Construction and global train-car leader CRRC are among the companies behind the rush. Projects are underway in several cities, from Beijing to Qingyuan in the south to Urumqi in the far west. Investments in the projects are expected to total around 60 billion yuan ($8.7 billion).
Quiet and cost-efficient
"I was surprised when the train moved silently," an office worker from Shanghai said with a smile after riding a magnetic levitation train in Changsha, Hunan Province. Since no wheels touch the rail, acceleration does not increase vibration.
The Changsha service, which started pilot operations in May 2016, connects an airport to a high-speed train station. The project includes China Railway Construction and the CRRC group as investors. The network spans around 19km, with investment amounting to 4.3 billion yuan. The maximum speed by design is around 100kph, but the trains actually run around 70kph. The service is slated to officially launch by the end of this year.
Noise level in the passenger cabin is so low that people need not speak loudly to have a conversation, said a representative of the developer. "It's quieter than a monorail and so it's easier to get support from local residents."
As automobiles increase rapidly and fuel road congestion in China, developing urban transit systems is an urgent task. Developers have installed subway systems in large cities, but construction costs 500 million to 800 million yuan per kilometer, due to the digging work involved. Aboveground maglev rails cost just 200 million to 300 million yuan per kilometer.
The lower-speed maglev, developed in China, keeps train cars floating 8mm above the rail, and does not require the liquid helium or powerful magnet used to keep trains 10cm above the rail as in the Japanese system. "It costs half to one third of a subway to build, and requires less space to install rails," says an official of the Hunan project developer.
With these advantages, maglev train projects are increasing rapidly in China. China Railway Construction in October created a wholly owned subsidiary to step up maglev construction. The company has reached an agreement with the government of Qingyuan in Guangdong Province, and plans a 30km network costing 10 billion yuan. The target is to begin operations at the end of 2018.
China Railway Group, a major developer with former ties to the Railway Ministry, is building a 20km maglev system to open this year in a Beijing suburb, at a cost of 12 billion yuan.
Similar networks are envisioned for Urumqi, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and to link the Sichuan Province cities of Deyang and Chengdu.
A CRRC group unit developing and building maglev train cars is preparing to increase output. A Hunan Province subsidiary will supply the Changsha project, and a Hebei Province subsidiary will supply the Beijing project. The plan is to increase output capacity as projects some online.
Eye on high-speed maglevs
The Chinese government had considered using maglev technology for a high-speed rail network in the 1990s. At the end of 2002, a high-speed maglev train line employing German technology opened in Shanghai, with the cars reaching speeds of 400kph. But maglev development was suspended as China prioritized conventional high-speed railway projects.
Now that development and construction of high-speed rail lines has settled down, the government is gearing up to resume high-speed maglev development. It plans to invest about 3 billion yuan with an aim to develop a maglev train capable of speeds of 600kph -- on a par with Japan's -- around 2020.
The ultimate goal is to export the technology. An official at the Hunan maglev project developer said that observation teams have visited from such countries as Singapore, Germany and Brazil. While it is pitching the slower maglevs as a cheaper and quieter alternative to subways for increasingly congested cities in Asia, China hopes to export high-speed maglevs in the future.
Meanwhile, Central Japan Railway, or JR Tokai, which is scheduled to launch high-speed maglev service in Japan in 2027, aims to export the technology to the U.S. Already fighting over conventional high-speed rail projects, Japan and China could see the battlefield shift to high-speed maglevs in the near future.