China unveils world’s first 600km/h train – cutting journey between Shanghai and Shenzhen from 10 to 2.5 hours

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The fastest ground vehicle in the world.

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Using electro-magnetic force, a maglev train “levitates” above the track with no contact between body and rail. The term “maglev” itself is derived from “magnetic levitation”. Some engineers called it the floating trains. These trains basically float over guideways using the basic principles of magnets to replace the old steel wheel and track trains.

And because the trains never (or rarely) touch the track, there’s very little noise and vibration, let alone friction, allowing a high speed of hundreds of miles per hour. More importantly, there’re fewer mechanical breakdowns because wear and tear is almost non-existent. It basically uses two sets of magnets – one to push the train up the track, and another to move the elevated train ahead.

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Today (July 20), China unveiled a maglev train capable of cruising at a top speed of 600 kilometres per hour. Self-developed by China and manufactured Qingdao, East China’s Shandong Province, the newly introduced train would be the fastest ground vehicle in the world. In comparison, the current high-speed trains run at 350 km/h while airplanes fly at 800km/h.

At 600km/h (373 mph), it would only take travellers about 2.5 hours to reach Shanghai from Beijing, a journey of 1,300 kilometres with existing train travel distance or 1,100 kilometres of air distance. Currently, it would take 3 hours by plane and 5.5 hours by high-speed rail to travel between both destinations. It means travelling from London to Paris (450km) would take only 45 minutes.

To put it in another perspective, the maglev train would cover 10 kilometres every minute (or 60 seconds). It also means that the current 10-hour high-speed train trip from Shenzhen to Shanghai will be shortened to only 2.5 hours once a maglev train is built. Actually, China has been using the technology for almost two decades already, but on a smaller scale.

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The Shanghai maglev train or Shanghai Transrapid is already using the “magnetic levitation” technology since 2003, the first commercial high-speed maglev train with a cruising speed of 431 km/h (268 mph). Connecting Shanghai Pudong International Airport and Longyang Road Station, a journey that takes seven minutes and 20 seconds to complete the distance of 30 km, it is the fastest commercial train in the world.

China, the world’s most populous nation and the world’s second biggest economy, possessed the world’s largest network of high-speed railways. As of the end of 2020, China had built 146,300-km of railways, with 38,000-km for high-speed trains. China has the largest network of high-speed railways in the world, covering 95% of cities with a population of more than a million.

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By late-2020, China National Railways was operating more than 9,600 high-speed trains per day. The driverless “bullet trains” connecting Beijing and Zhangjiakou in northern Hebei province are capable of hitting speeds up to 350 km/h, making them the world’s fastest autonomous trains. Built in just four years, the line has 10 stations serving two of the major Beijing 2022 Winter Games venues.

In comparison, Spain, a country that has Europe’s most extensive high-speed network and second only to China in the world, has just over 3,200-km (2,000 miles) of dedicated lines built for operation at over 250 km/h. The UK has just 107 kilometres while the US has only one – Amtrak’s North East Corridor – where Acela trains currently top out at 240 km/h, covering 735 kilometres.

“The Chinese have created an entire high-speed rail network on an unprecedented scale – often faster and certainly more reliable than Chinese domestic flights. It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer size of some of the new stations, all with a reserved seat and increasingly without the need for paper tickets, just a scan of an ID card or passport at the ticket gates,” – says rail travel expert Mark Smith.

Construction of the 815-kilometre, US$13.5 billion Zhengzhou East-Wangzhou line, for example, was completed in less than five years. In contrast, Amtrak’s ‘A Vision for High-Speed Rail on the Northeast Corridor’ proposal in 2010 for dedicated 350km/h high-speed rail tracks between Washington, DC, and Boston, a distance of 713 kilometres, will cost US$151 billion with a completion date in 2030.

The latest revelation of the maglev train, to be manufactured by CRRC Qingdao Sifang Rolling Stock Research Institute (CRRC SRI), would be equipped with 5G, the 5th generation mobile network. Passengers will be able to charge their mobile phones wirelessly. China is already leading in global maglev train-related patents, accounting for 43.52%, with Japan in second place with 20.57%.

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To demonstrate its quality, the 600 km/h high-speed maglev train system will most likely be used first in Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong and Shanghai-Hangzhou high-speed maglev channels. Beijing aims to build 200,000 kilometres of railways, 460,000 kilometres of highways, and 25,000 kilometres of high-level sea lanes by 2035, according to a 15-year transport expansion plan published in February 2020.

The ambitious plan would see all cities with a population of over 200,000 to be covered by the railway network before 2035, and those with a population of more than 500,000 will be connected to high-speed tracks. The maglev train will become an important piece of the central plan, and China plans to build up to nine maglev lines stretching more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles).

However, there’s one problem with maglev trains – they are expensive to build. Zhao Jian, a professor with Beijing Jiaotong University, said – “The maglev lines can earn money only when a network of high-speed transportation is formed, with huge flows of passengers.” China is unlikely to export its developed maglev train or relevant technologies for obvious reason.