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China seeks the ultimate high-speed train

By Chris Peterson (China Daily) Updated: 2017-05-25 07:03

News that Chinese scientists are conducting research in the hope of developing a maglev train that would reach speeds of up to 2,000 kilometers per hour as it rockets through an underwater tube made my jaw drop - until I realized that man's constant search for speed isn't that new.

Close to where I live in southeast London lie Sydenham Woods, the last trace of the Great South Wood that covered most of the Home counties around London in medieval times.

Hidden among the undergrowth are the remains of an extraordinary experiment by an enterprising railway engineer and inventor called Thomas Webster Rammell.

In 1864, dissatisfied with the slow, messy and dirty business of early steam trains, he came up with the idea of a pneumatic-powered train that would shoot passengers in an open carriage from A to B via a sealed, relatively air-tight tunnel.

So far, so good. He'd already experimented with a pneumatic railway for the London Pneumatic Despatch Co to convey letters in vacuum-driven wagons.

China seeks the ultimate high-speed train

What doesn't seem to have been taken into account is the effect of such a ride on human passengers.

Consisting of a carriage fitted with a large collar of bristles, the conveyance, with its hapless passengers, was sucked along an airtight tunnel. It operated for a little more than two months, and was believed to be a demonstration line for a more permanent link between Waterloo on the south bank of the River Thames and the government buildings in central London's Whitehall.

Construction was started, but never finished. To this day, locals talk of people with ruptured eardrums and rumors abound of ghosts. The sleepers and part of the tunnel exist to this day.

Thus ended that particular attempt at speeding up transport. Flash forward, if you will, to 1976, when the joint Franco-British supersonic airliner Concorde entered service with British Airways and Air France.

Capable of more than twice the speed of sound, at Mach 2.04 and flying from London to New York in half the time of a conventional airliner, Concorde was a technological marvel.

I was lucky enough to fly Concorde twice, and watching the curvature of the Earth's surface, combined with the slight kick as it tore through the Mach 2 barrier, was awesome.

But economics and fuel prices, as well as environmental concerns and a fatal crash in Paris in July 2000, meant the delta-winged marvel was withdrawn from service in 2003.

If you wanted speed at ground level then, you had to turn to France, where state-owned SNCF introduced in 1981 the Train a Grand Vitesse, or High-Speed Train, capable of moving at up to 570 km/h.

That network now covers most of France's major cities.

In 2007, China introduced its own high-speed rail system, which is now the most heavily used in the world, with 1.44 billion passengers carried last year. The longest line is 2,298 km, from Guangzhou, Guangdong province, to Beijing.

And, to bring us back to high technology, there is the world's only maglev line, which is in Shanghai and is capable of hitting 431 km/h.

Maglev means trains gliding above a track by means of magnetic repulsion, and power by a linear motor.

Frankly, the idea of a maglev train powering its way through an underwater tube at a theoretical speed of 2,000 km/h seems fantastical to me. But if anyone can do it, then Chinese technological innovation can.

Watch this space.

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