China has been operating the world’s fastest commercial magnetic levitation (‘maglev’) train since 2003. But even the 431 km/h speed of the Shanghai Transrapid might soon be considered slow compared to the newest developments. Chinese researchers at the Institute of Electrical Engineering at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have started testing the ‘electromagnetic sled’ system. The system is supposed to propel objects of a tonne or more to a speed of up to 1030 km/h, setting a speed record for high-mass ultra-high-speed electromagnetic propulsion technology.
China has long been dedicated to expanding its high-speed train system to reduce the carbon footprint of domestic flights. The maglev system, first developed by Siemens and ThyssenKrupp in Germany in the 1970s, plays an important role in that plan. Maglev trains use magnetic repulsion to lift the vehicle above the track and propel it forward. As the train gains speed, the magnets raise it 10 cm above the track, eliminating friction, and allowing for higher speeds.
On top of that, China is planning to remove air resistance with the help of sealed tunnels from which the air has been pumped out, reducing air resistance and allowing trains to “fly on the ground.” But according to the South China Morning Post, critics doubt the feasibility of such a system, given the immense investment in infrastructure needed.
While new electromagnetic sled technology won’t immediately result in near-speed-of-sound trains, researchers hope that the insights gained will help improve traditional high-speed train systems, as well as aerospace and aerodynamics research.
China is not the only nation dedicated to developing high-speed maglev technology. In 2011, Japan granted permission for the construction of a maglev train line from Tokyo to Osaka, and in 2015, a Japanese 7-car prototype reached a top speed of 603 km/h. Whichever of these prototypes is faster—Japan’s network of 3,500 kilometers of Shinkansen tracks or China’s network of more than 40,000 kilometers—both of these countries may look forward to a future in which modern train technology reduces the need for flights.