Rail experts were surprised by the news, with some calling the plan “ridiculous”.
The Ministry of Science and Technology on Wednesday released a five-year plan on high-speed train research and development, stressing the need to address issues of speed, safety, energy efficiency and developing export markets.
But perhaps most shocking was that making the trains faster topped the ministry’s to-do list.
“Continuously increasing train speeds … meets the demand of our country’s high-speed-rail development strategy,” the document said.
Mainland researchers were asked to study and develop a “super-high-speed train system” in “super-high-speed conditions”. And to start with, they will be given an experimental train that was built last year with a top speed of 500km/h.
The ministry did not reveal the cost of the project.
On safety – undoubtedly the public’s top concern after a number of high-speed-rail accidents last year – the ministry plans to develop various technologies such as an “intelligent” train-control system that automatically detects problems, diagnoses them and decides how to solve them.
Wang Mengshu, deputy chief engineer of China Railway Tunnel Group and a drafter of the country’s high-speed-rail blueprint, said yesterday that he opposed plans for a super-high-speed train.
The mainland’s high-speed rails were built for trains operating at 350km/h, the professor said.
“The Ministry of Science and Technology has made a ridiculous decision,” Wang said. “We can guarantee safety up to 385km/h, but rails that will sustain the grind and impact of super-high-speed trains, with speeds over 400km/h, have never been built and will never be.
“Instead of endlessly increasing speed, the limited manpower and resources should be invested in studies that improve safety and quality.”
Professor Zhao Jian, an economist with Beijing Jiaotong University and an outspoken opponent of the rapid expansion of the high-speed-rail network, said super-high-speed trains would not be economical, even if they overcame hardware hurdles, including safe rails.
“It would be as uneconomical as making a jumbo jet fly at sea level,” Zhao said.
The ministry did not respond to a South China Morning Post request yesterday for more details of the project, but in the document it cited scientific and technological benefits in justifying the development of a super-high-speed train.
The super-high-speed technology would also place a higher benchmark on the quality of hardware and software, thus providing a greater margin of safety on lower speed systems, the document said.
“An overseas buyer might be impressed, reasoning that if we can make a train run safely at 500km/h, we can make it run very safely at 300km/h,” Zhao said. “So the only benefit of super-high-speed trains that I can think of is marketing.”
China set an ambitious goal during the financial crisis in 2008, setting the total length of the nation’s high-speed rail network at 16,000 kilometres by 2020.
But last year’s disaster in Wenzhou Zhejiang province that killed 40 people and severely damaged the public perception of China’s high-speed rail technology forced authorities to lower the trains’ operating speeds from 350km/h to 300km/h.
South China Morning Post