China’s experimental maglev train could give hyperloop a run for its money

The new trains would reach speeds of more than 620 mph.

Flickr / maxintosh

High-speed, maglev trains capable of reaching speeds 215 miles per hour are nothing new for China’s sprawling transportation system. But a recent announcement from government officials triples that top speed.

There are plans for an even faster train that would use vacuum-sealed tunnels to reach speeds of more than 620 miles per hour a speed that would, potentially outpace current hyperloop developments in the U.S.

Asia Times reports that this is part of new nationwide transportation development revealed in September as part of Beijing’s latest transportation policy paper. The plan says that these “experimental” maglev rails would be laid in the central province of Hubei in early 2020 and would be capable of reducing travel time from Hubei’s capital city, Wuhan, to the near-coastal city of Guangzhou, to just under two hours for a distance 1,367 miles.

What makes these rails different than their predecessors (and what might sound familiar if you’ve heard of Elon Musk’s hyperloop) is that the proposed plans will use not only magnet-induced levitation for its rails, but it will also encase those rails within vacuum sealed tunnels. These tactics drastically cut down on annoying obstacles like friction and would allow a train to travel thousands of miles in a couple hours what would have taken over half a day otherwise. It’s essentially the realization of what was proposed in Musk’s whitepaper on hyperloop, released in August 2013.

According to Asia Times, Hubei expects to start testing 124-mile sections of these vacuum tunnels in 2020 to “to verify the cutting-edge, high-temperature superconducting maglev theory and ultimately push the speed limit to 1,000km/h.”

Asia Times reports that such an increase in travel efficiency between large city hubs in China may make it more feasible for business men and travelers to take a train instead of hopping on a flight, in turn helping reduce China’s still staggering carbon footprint.

If this ultra-fast rail sounds too good to be true, it might be cause a similar U.S. based project, Elon Musk’s hyperloop, has proposed a similar plan and thus far failed to deliver on it.

Hyperloop Alpha whitepaper

That 2013 white paper from Musk predicts that a maglev hyperloop would be able to transport passengers at 700 mph and go between San Francisco and Los Angeles in just 35 minutes. The technology has yet to approach that speed and has remained stalled in the testing phase.

In contrast, Hubei says that by 2020 they will begin testing 124 miles of vacuum sealed transit tunnel — which would be at least twenty-times longer than the longest proposed track test by Musk, which will be 10 km (6.2-miles) during the next trials.

As for whether or not they’ll achieve those deadlines, China has a bit of a mixed track record. They do already boast the world’s fastest maglev train that carries passengers from Beijing to Shanghai in just two hours at 600 km/h (372 mph.)

But on the flip side, in recent years they also announced and subsequently shuttered a “car-eating” bus called the straddle bus that was meant to cut down on traffic congestion by literally driving over cars. This project, surprisingly, never made it to commercial production.

But, according to conversations hyperloop design companies Delft and TUM had with Inverse in August, a tunnel anywhere between nine and 44 miles would be sufficient to reach Musk’s holy grail top speed, suggesting that China’s 124 mile test track should theoretically have no problem.

That is, assuming they’re also able to solve technical problems the Boring Company itself faces such as fully sealing the vacuum tunnels and scaling up the technology to human size capacities.

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