A maglev train at the Pudong International Airport.
High-speed rail (HSR) will connect not only cities, states and countries in the future, but also far-reaching continents. In about 15 to 20 years from now, one could travel seamlessly from London, UK to Beijing, China and even have a detour within the Gulf countries using the global high-speed rail network. In the next 15 years, while UK would have built its new HSR2 that covers 332 kilometers, China will have completed over 25,631 kilometers of high speed track to seamlessly move people in its country.
As of December 2013, China already has 11,085 kilometers of operational HSR tracks compared to the having no HSR tracks in 2000. By 2020, the Chinese ministry aims to have completed 25,000 kilometers of total HSR track, which will connect all of its major cities. Some of these lines are passenger designated lines (PDL), while others are also capable of carrying freight, known as high-speed logistics. The total cost of Chinese HSR ambitions is billed at around $300 billion USD when completed.
Now compare that to the US. Shockingly, the world’s most influential country that has had a history of making billionaires out of rail from the days of the gold rush in California lags behind the world. What is defined as high-speed rail in the US (speeds of 120 kilometers per hour) is figuratively considered similar to the speed of a bull-drawn cart in 19th century China. It is furthermore a little sad to see that the richest country in the world operates only one true to definition high-speed line capable of traveling at a speed of 240 kilometers per hour, which is the Acela express that travels from Boston toWashington, D.C. Also, the US has only one dedicated HSR project in the pipelines, which is the California HSR (CHSR). Phase 1 of the CHRS, expected to be operational by 2029, aims to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles within a travel time of 2hours and 40 minutes. The initial cost of $100 billion USD has been reduced to $69 billion USD by migrating to a blended system from a full high-speed system. The blended system allows for modernization of existing local and regional rail track so that the HSR can use those lines before more dedicated tracks are added.
I personally don’t think the US government gets it, but Mr. Elon Musk does. On August 12, 2013, Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors TSLA +2.28% and SpaceX, revealed details of a new super fast mode of transportation called ”the Hyperloop”. The Hyperloop aimed to ideally serve cities that are less than 1,500 kilometers or 900 miles apart and is based on the principle of transporting high-speed transport capsules in a dedicated tube (partial vacuum). Although the Hyperloop is still conceptual and there are enormous challenges to overcome and prove the physics of it actually working, it is still a significant breakthrough in high-speed mass transportation because the technology and intellectual property has been floated to the public as an open source transportation solution.
Yet the Hyperloop is not the only radical transport solution currently in development, the Canadian firm Magnovate aims to commercialize Magline, a proprietary magnetic levitation transport solution. Magline further improves on system economics by utilizing a “packet switching” model that enables offline stops without slowing traffic on the mainline. This enables more vehicles that are not connected to one another to run more often on the network. A project is being developed to connect the cities of Edmonton and Calgary with one of their tracks. The planned length will be just over 180 miles (300 kilometers) and is expected to cost $3.60 billion USD or roughly about $12 million USD per kilometer.
Meanwhile, in about 15 years the Japanese will have inaugurated the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev train between Tokyo and Nagoya. As a matter of fact, JR-Central plans to open a demonstration service by the 2020 Summer Olympics. From a new station in Kōfu, tourists will be able to ride on a section of the track through the Yamanashi Mountains. The Japanese are not new to setting standards — as of date, the Japanese Maglev (magnetic levitation) train has the highest recorded speed of 581 kilometers per hour, which was achieved during a test run and is about 6 kilometers per hour faster than its nearest rival, the conventional French TGV. With the top speed of a these trains just 25 percent less than the average speed of a commercial airplane (which travels at about 800 kilometers per hour), one can travel faster between city center to city center and not go through hassles of intense security checks and the need to travel outside of cities to reach airports hours in advance.
By 2027, when the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev service is expected to be inaugurated, next-generation rolling stock and signal upgrades are expected to raise high-speed rail services in the excess of 320 kilometers per hour. Interestingly, in Europe it is not the rich countries like Germany and France who are at the forefront of HSR, but the Southern European countries struggling with debt, like Spain. Spain is expected to build 3,010 kilometers of new HSR by 2022 (1,308 kilometers currently under construction and 1,702 kilometers that are planned). Also, Spain has become successful in exporting its HSR technologies to the outside world. For example, phase 2 of the Haramain High-Speed Rail Project in Saudi Arabia (450 kilometers connecting Mecca and Medina) was awarded to a Saudi-Spanish consortium. But the French were the original European proponents of HSR and their commitment is expected to continue through 2020. Germany, on the other hand, has plans of building about 670 kilometers of new lines with target operations by 2025. Although, one of the most anticipated developments in European HSR is the Lyon-Turin line that will connect the French TGV and Italian TAV high-speed networks with construction expected to start in 2014-2015 and a total project cost of $2.95 billion USD.
While people in the West are profusely debating the benefits of HSR, trying to find budgets and getting public support, China is expected to become a world leader in the rail industry by investing, constructing, supplying material, operating and finally transferring railway systems to the rest of the world.