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China's High-Speed-Rail Revolution

Dedicated lines are the key to record-breaking speeds.

China has begun operating what is, by several measures, the world’s fastest rail line: a dedicated 968-kilometer line linking Wuhan, in the heart of central China, to Guangzhou, on the southeastern coast. In trials, the “WuGuang” line trains (locally built variants of Japan’s Shinkansen and Germany’s InterCity Express high-speed trains) clocked peak speeds of up to 394 kilometers per hour (or 245 miles per hour). They have also recorded an average speed of 312 kph in nonstop runs four times daily since the WuGuang’s December 26 launch, slashing travel time from Wuhan to Guangzhou from 10.5 hours to less than three.

China’s Shinkansen: China’s WuGuang rail line employs locally-manufactured variants of Japan’s Shinkansen (pictured) and Siemens’ Velaro high speed trains. However, it is the line’s physical and digital infrastructure that enables the trains to beat world speed records.

WuGuang’s speed blows away the reigning champion: France’s TGV, which runs from Lorraine to Champagne and averages 272 kph. It also bests China’s first high-speed train, the Beijing-to-Tianjin trains that average 230 kph, as well as Shanghai’s magnetically levitated airport shuttle trains that can hit 430 kph but average less than 251 kph.

Rail experts say the builders of the new WuGuang line deserve more bragging rights than the trains’ European and Japanese designers.

“The high-speed rail technology implemented in China is not that much different from the TGV, Germany’s ICE, and the Shinkansen,” says Rongfang Liu, a rail expert at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. What is notable, she and others say, is that unlike many high-speed lines that repurpose older tracks, this one was designed from the ground up for very high-speed operation over hundreds of kilometers. Bridges and tunnels, as well as the concrete bed beneath the track, have been designed to safely rocket passengers around, through, or over the natural and man-made obstacles that would otherwise force the trains to slow down.

Plenty more speedy lines are coming in China under an ambitious build-out initiated in 2006 by China’s Ministry of Railways, and accelerated with government stimulus funds. A two-trillion-yuan ($293 billion) plan envisions 16,000 kilometers of dedicated high-speed rail lines connecting all of China’s major cities by 2020. The first East-West segment–a link from Xi’an to Zhengzhou–could begin operating as early as this month, and work is underway to extend the Beijing-Tianjin line southward to Shanghai by 2012. WuGuang, meanwhile, is expected to expand northward to Beijing and South to Hong Kong by 2013. “Over the next five years there’ll be more high-speed rail added in China than the rest of the world combined,” says Keith Dierkx, director of IBM’s Beijing-based Global Rail Innovation Center.

High-speed rail is seen as a clean way to boost the expansion of China’s transportation system, according to Dierkx. Dedicated lines will help meet rail demand, which is expected to more than triple to five billion passengers per year by 2020. And building these lines is seen as preferable to further expanding reliance on imported oil for automobiles and airplanes. Dierkx says dedicated high-speed rail should also improve freight transportation by easing congestion on conventional rail lines.

Building fast lines requires civil engineering works on a massive scale. WuGuang has 625 bridges with a combined length of 362 kilometers, and 221 tunnels with a combined length of 177 kilometers, contributing to a total construction cost of 116 billion yuan ($17 billion). The 1,300-kilometer Beijing-to-Shanghai line will cost an estimated 221 billion yuan–more than the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project.

However, experts say part of the high cost will be paid back through lower operating costs. Rather than laying rail on wood or concrete sleepers set into crushed rock, the Chinese rails are almost exclusively set into beds of concrete slabs designed by German rail engineering firms RAIL.ONE and Max Bögl. This eliminates damage to the track and rolling stock caused by flying stones lifted by turbulence from the high-speed trains. It also reduces wear on the wheels from shifting tracks.

Monitoring and control systems are another up-front investment that is both a precondition to high-speed operation and a cost-saver, providing the confidence in safety needed to drive trains fast. “If a train is going 300 to 350 kph, the consequences of safety failures become very critical,” says Dierkx.

Dierkx says that systems under development by his Beijing-based center include train-mounted laser scanners to observe track conditions; real-time systems to predict failures; sensors on bridges and tunnels; and dynamic scheduling systems to ensure that trains are available when needed and have a free path to operate at top speeds.

Dierkx, Liu, and others say the U.S. could ultimately benefit from China’s investment in high-speed rail, because it should bring down the cost of creating the type of dedicated high-speed rail lines that the U.S. still lacks. “The U.S. is going to be able to capture the advantage of a lot of the innovation taking place globally,” says Dierkx.

It increasingly looks as though the U.S. will do just that. The California High Speed Rail Authority is using $10 billion in funding from a bond issue approved by voters last winter to begin detailed design work on a 790-mile system linking Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. Rod Diridon, executive director of San Diego State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute and former chair of California’s authority, says the system will reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by nine million tons by 2050, since high-speed rail is three times more efficient than flying, and five times more efficient than driving per passenger mile.

Diridon says California’s bond vote broke the political “dam” holding back high-speed rail. Within months, President Obama proposed a high-speed rail plan and Congress approved $8 billion in stimulus funds that the Federal Railroad Administration is expected to award this month. “All of a sudden the funding is there,” says Diridon.

Diridon says even Amtrak could get the dedicated lines it needs to unleash its Acela Express service from Boston to New York City–an idea that was all but unthinkable just a few years ago. Amtrak’s Canadian-designed trains are capable of traveling at over 200 kph, but their average speed is less than half that because they share the rails with freight. “We’re looking very hard at how to get the Acela off the freight lines,” says Diridon.

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