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What speed rail?

Evolution of rail speeds

Some history first

Rail has come a long way as a mode of transport since its first recognised commerciality, generally accepted as when George Stephenson constructed his first steam locomotive for the Stockton and Darlington Railway (1825). Rail speed has certainly increased over the years, and rail’s predicted death may not eventuate.

Believe it or not the first public railway track in NSW came about in 1855, between Sydney and Parramatta Junction – then a distance of 22 kms.

Australia has had its problems with States choosing different gauges but for the purposes of these web pages we will assume we are past that point, so we will be mainly talking standard gauge track – until we get into the very latest technologies of Maglev, which operate differently to our accustomed “wheel on rails” experiences.

Up until the advent of Maglev, the most notable high speed train services were from the Japanese (initiated in 1964, and generally known around the world as the “bullet train”, but in Japan it is simply referred to as the ‘Shinkansen’, which is the high speed network). These trains now travel commercially at up to 320 km/h but we understand can technically go faster (360 km/h already tested). The French TGV (‘Train a Grande Vitesse”) set the previous world speed record for a train, and the current record for “wheels on rail” types, of 574.8 km/h in April, 2007, but this was not in an operating configuration. Nevertheless the French have led Europe for many decades in high speed rail. TGV trains now operate commercially on lines where they regularly reach 320 km/h. So, without going into individual details of other countries such as Germany, Spain, Italy and lately the Chinese, who are taking their trains to this level or higher, let us just stop here for a moment and accept for sake of argument that, for “wheels on rail”, we are talking about commercial speeds of between 300km/h – and (say) 400 km/h in future – for this is what our Federal Governments 2013  Phase Two study into ‘High Speed Rail’ effectively concluded.

BUT: Just how fast is this versus jet aircraft?

Following the fleet variations of our main domestic carriers Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar is a specialty in itself, as the commercial aircraft manufacturing industry is quite dynamic and airlines do adopt different strategies in term of aircraft choice and fleet configuration. It is fairly safe to say, however, that most commercial aircraft of relevance to possible high speed rail routes can cruise (at high altitude levels) at speeds somewhere between 800 km/h and 900 km/h. This is clearly faster than the trains we have the choice of, even if Australia invests heavily in High Speed Rail.

In fact what this points to is that the term “bullet train” is a misnomer, as bullets are generally regarded as fitting the speed range between 1,000 to 3,000 km/h. A more apt name for the latest high speed rail technologies would be a “jet train”, and indeed this is what the whole Gillard Government High Speed Rail (“HSR”) study of 2012-13 was about; could High Speed Rail out-compete commercial jet aircraft services?

Essentially that boils down to just what is the travel time, right from the point of origin to the point of destination, rather than just the maximum speed reached in between. The Gillard Government HSR studies sought to model this for a whole host of postulated origins and destinations, seeking to ascertain if total travel time could on average be brought down below 3 hours for each of the Melbourne-Sydney and Brisbane-Sydney lines. This is why so much emphasis was given to finding the closest to straight, and closest to flat, lines for the HSR corridors. The strong emphasis on achieving this objective, especially in the Phase Two study, seemed incongruous with, for instance, the omission of Maglev technologies from the terms of reference.

Another key omission, in the author’s viewpoint, was the difference between the level of productivity of workers whilst travelling on an aircraft route versus on High Speed Rail. For, it is widely recognised that the ride on modern high speed rail (as exemplified in Europe, China and Japan) is smoother, and enables large periods of productive work time, with full access to Internet plus electricity for re-charging mobile devices. This has value which was not properly taken account of in the economic studies of 2012-13, and possibly has been under-estimated in all Australian studies to date – though it is granted that the same value analysis cannot apply to leisure travel, where no rational economic time value can be ascribed to time on board the train. That is intangible.

The recent developments – Japanese SC-Maglev

It was alluded to in another post that Japan has progressed its technology substantially with its technical breakthroughs using the new field of SC-Maglev. So much so that the Japanese Government has approved the Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central out here, JR Tokai in Japan) to build a duplication of its most successful route from Tokyo to Osaka using this SC-Maglev version, on a route called the Chuo Shinkansen. Officially regulated top speed of this service, pre-construction, is 505 km/h and estimated average speed over the interval between Tokyo and Nagoya is 429 km/h. Rail technology has certainly come a  long way since Stephenson!

It does appear as if Japan has thus far taken a leap forward past the Chinese and Germans who have not (yet) beaten the scientific challenges of using the Superconducting form of Maglev, especially to the status required of a commercial operation. [For various answers on SC-Maglev we suggest you try viewing the US web site for The North East Maglev, or TNEM, project – also see this article about progress with Maglev in Maryland, USA].

The new project by JR Central  will have an initial stage between Tokyo and Nagoya similar to the distance from Canberra to Sydney, which they state officially will be covered in a time of 40 minutes, with 4 intermediate stops.  Construction of the line commenced in December, 2014 and it is expected to be operational by 2027.

More recently, as part of a final phase of testing for the service, the project’s L0 series Maglev, operating in a 7 car manned train set, established a new land speed record for rail vehicles of 603 km/h. This run, whilst setting the record, was actually carried out in order to acquire performance data on speeds exceeding 550 km/h, which data is to be used to help optimise designs for the commercial line. Reading between the lines of this, though the Japanese Government originally approved the project with a restricted top operating speed of 505 km/h, it seems to us possible that the eventual line may be run even faster.

For the present time, therefore, unless new data comes forward, we are assuming that the Japanese SC-Maglev can be run at a top speed of 505 km/h, quite an advance on what the Phase Two study utilised in 2013, resulting in an even greater query on why this technology has not been studied further for Australia. At these speeds, if a suitable corridor could be defined and secured, then the travel time between Melbourne and Sydney could work out at more like 2 hours than 3 hours. Indeed, due to the reported acceleration potential of the technology, whereby the time taken to reach 500 km/h is less than 2.5 minutes, we think it could be used in situations that the official Government studies here have not yet considered. The recent tests show that it takes approximately 10kms to get to top speed, and about the same distance to decelerate and stop. We are informed that it can maintain top speed on a gradient of up to 4 per cent and even on a 10 per cent gradient can maintain the sort of speed that the TGV service achieves at its maximum.

That is the sort of travel speed and time that would have to be transformational for our country. It truly is almost a “jet train”.

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