Making sense of the bullet train
A look at the technology that powers Japan’s Shinkasen bullet train, and why it is a step in the right direction for India
With train derailments hitting the headlines frequently, it is but natural to treat the news of the government commencing work on its first high speed railway project with more than a pinch of salt. Today’s Rajdhani Express guard coach derailing near New Delhi station is simply a case in point, it being the fifth such incident in the last two weeks.
Yet, the government’s move to introduce Japan’s Shinkansen, better known as a bullet train, in the country when coupled with other moves such as betting on electric vehicles, and toying with the idea of having a high-speed ground transport system called the Hyperloop, is a step in the right direction because it is sending out the right signals that India is at the forefront of technology.
Timely execution of this “Make in India” project, which is expected to see the light of day in August 2022, will of course pose a challenge given the history of delayed projects that this country has since.
One may recall that the government has been talking about bullet trains for the last three years. On 8 July 2014, the government in its railway budget had proposed bullet trains, bio-toilets, ultrasonic fixes for railway tracks, GIS (geographic information system) mapping, digitization of railway land, Wi-Fi connectivity at select stations and in trains, logistics support for e-commerce companies and going paperless in five years.
However, given Japan’s professional involvement, one may expect the project to be completed on time.
There is another factor that we need to keep in mind, though. Given the pace at which the technology treadmill moves, we will have advanced bullet train technologies rivalling for our attention by that time. This is not to say that the current Shinkansen technology train, which is being introduced in India, is not worthy of our attention and praise.
For one, trains that use Shinkansen technologies are aerodynamic. The front cars of the Shinkansen trains resemble the nose of an aeroplane to lower wind resistance. The passenger compartments ride atop flat cars that are fitted with an air spring which uses compressed air to absorb the wheel vibration so that it does not reach the passenger compartments, failing which they can fall apart.
Shinkansen tracks have no sharp curves and they never cross other railway lines, so the trains never have to stop and wait for other trains to pass. Also, since human drivers are unable to read signals at such fast speeds, bullet trains have a different kind of speed-control system, known as Automatic Train Control (ATC), which allows for speed information to be transmitted along the track and received by a signal attached to the driver’s seat.
Japan’s Shinkansen train system has been in operation since 1964 and there have been significant advancements since then.
For instance, the Chuo Shinkansen link that will run from Tokyo to Nagoya to Osaka (construction on this line began in 2014) will support a Maglev train—a train that literally floats above the rails thanks to magnetic repulsion. These trains operate at speeds much faster than current bullet trains.
In April 2015, a manned superconducting Maglev train broke two previous land speed records for rail vehicles. The train was clocked at 603km/h, or 375 mph. This is much faster than the Maglev trains already operating in Shanghai, China, and in South Korea, which run at speeds of 268 to 311 miles per hour and 68 miles per hour, respectively.
The portion of the line from Tokyo to Nagoya is planned to open in 2027, and the extension to Osaka in 2045.
Magnetic levitation (which explains why we call it “Maglev”), is achieved through the use of an electrodynamic suspension system, or EDS. The rails (also called guideways) contain two sets of cross-connected metal coils wound to form electromagnets. Even the train has superconducting electromagnets, called bogies. When stopped, the train rests on rubber wheels.
To begin motion, the train moves forward slowly on these wheels, allowing the magnets beneath the train to interact with those of the guideway. Once the train reaches 150 kilometers per hour, the magnetic force is strong enough to lift the train 100 milimetres (four inches) off the ground, eliminating friction to allow for increasingly high speeds.
The same magnetic forces that lift the train also move it forward and keep it centered within the guideway. This is the same technology used by Tesla’s Hyperloop, which makes the ride smooth.
The Hyperloop itself is an open-design concept, similar to the Linux operating system. Hence, neither SpaceX nor Elon Musk is developing a commercial Hyperloop.
On 6 September, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) signed an agreement with the Andhra Pradesh Economic Development Board (APEDB) to facilitate the development of HTT’s Hyperloop Transportation System in Andhra Pradesh. The proposed route for the Hyperloop is between the city centres of Vijayawada and Amravati, potentially turning a trip of more than one hour into a 5-minute ride. The project will use a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model with funding primarily from private investors.
During the first phase of the project, HTT will conduct a six-month feasibility study commencing in October. After conducting the initial six-month feasibility study, the second phase of the project will involve construction and building of HTT’s first Hyperloop in India.
While the proposed bullet train will cover the 508km distance between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in 2.07 hours (with limited stops) at about 350 km/h, the Hyperloop has a projected top speed of 760 mph (about 1,220 km/h, or nearly as fast as sound).
The fact is that many countries have developed high-speed rail to connect major cities. These countries include Austria, Belgium, the UK, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, the US and Uzbekistan.
China’s high-speed rail, for one, plans to invest $300 billion to build a 30,000km network as the largest, fastest and most technologically advanced high-speed railway system in the world by 2020. India’s rail system may not be that fast or rival that of China’s, but the government’s move to attempt to build such a system makes sense.
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