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China developing 600 mph airless maglev high-speed train

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China is developing a high-speed train that will travel at 620 miles per hour through maglev lines in airless tubes underground.

High-speed rail just got a whole lot faster.

China is reportedly developing a high-speed train that will travel at up to 1,000 kilometers per hour, or approx. 621 miles per hour, through Maglev lines in airless tubes underground.

Researchers at the National Power Traction Laboratory of Southwest Jiaotong University reportedly told Beijing-based Legal Evening News that they were working on a prototype "vactrain" with an average speed of 500 to 600 kilometers per hour (approx. 311 to 373 miles per hour.)

The researchers say the technology could be in use within a decade. In the meantime, a smaller model train may be introduced in two or three years, they said.

The technology at the heart of the train is Maglev, short for magnetic levitation, technology. A concept that's been around for more than 100 years, Maglev tech entails the suspension of a train via powerful magnets to remove the friction present at the rails of conventional trains.

The catch with maglev technology is that there's still friction from the air rushing past the train as it hurtles down the tracks. To date, the fastest Maglev train managed about 361 miles per hour -- not much faster than a conventional high-speed train.

But an airless tube -- a vacuum -- would remove that air drag, allowing for impressive speeds. (The trains themselves will contain pressurized air, just like an airplane.) A cheaper alternative to removing the air completely is to depressurize it, the researchers say.

Inventor and ET3 CEO Daryl Oster holds the U.S. patent for Evacuated Tube Transport, or ETT, technology. As you might expect, Oster has reportedly been working with Chinese researchers Shen Zhiyun, Zhang Yaoping and Wang Jiasu at the university on the concept.

The researchers say the train is cost-competitive with a traditional high-speed train because it has a smaller tunnel and requires less boring.

Here's a rather rosy video about an existing maglev system in China, via the eagle-eyed folks at AltTransport:

The best use of such train technology? Transoceanic travel. One proposal by Channel Tunnel pioneer Frank Davidson and engineer Yoshihiro Kyonati entailed floating a tube above the ocean floor, anchored with cables.

Call it the Concorde 2.0: live in New York, work in London. Or travel from New York to Los Angeles in 45 minutes, according to Oster's calculations.

A 2007 Worcester Polytechnic Institute report (.pdf) elaborates:

The Vactrain outweighs the current modes of transport in several ways, making it a ground-breaking idea. It has a clear edge over present airplanes, trains and automobiles as it causes no pollution and does not operate with gas or petroleum. Thus, while the present transportation would soon be in a sticky situation with the energy crises which the world is facing with dwindling resources of petroleum and gas, the Vactrain would emerge victorious. Moreover, the Vactrain is unaffected by any extremes in weather conditions. It has low maintenance costs as it employs the high-lifetime maglev technology, which also minimized wear due to friction. Additionally, it has low operation costs and 25% energy consumption when compared to aircrafts. Due to all these factors, the Vactrain triumphs over the current means not just in the future but even in present situations making it highly superior.

The Chinese aren't the only ones working on a vactrain, by the way: according to the report, both the U.S. and Switzerland are developing similar technology.

Illustrations: ET3

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure