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In the world of high speeds. Overview of modern trains

21 June 2024
Reading time ~ 17 min
CR400BF-J used to test technologies for the future CR450 high-speed EMU
CR400BF-J used to test technologies for the future CR450 high-speed EMU. Source: wikimedia
Belov Sergey, Editor-in-Chief, ROLLINGSTOCK Agency
Reading time ~ 17 min
Savenkova Ekaterina, Editorial Contributor to International Projects of ROLLINGSTOCK Agency

Sixty years ago, Japan launched the first EMU with a design speed of 210 km/h, which was developed and built by the entire country. This marked the advent of high-speed rail transport. In the current context, trains with a lower speed limit of 250 km/h are considered high-speed. This mode of transport has established itself as a viable option for destinations where speed is a priority, travel demand is significant, and the distance is not so great that passengers would choose a plane. Efforts to increase train speeds continue unabated, with new countries, such as Russia, joining the exclusive club of manufacturers.

The landscape of high-speed rail has evolved considerably since 1964. Previously, diesel high-speed trains were developed, and in the UK, they were even produced in large series. Today, electric motors and catenary power are the preferred choice. Nevertheless, two distinct approaches to the development of high-speed trains can be identified, which are concentrated and distributed traction.

Stake in concentrated traction

The Japanese high-speed pioneer was a multiple unit with traction equipment distributed along the trainset. This approach offers a number of advantages, including enhanced driving dynamics, a more evenly distributed load on the infrastructure, ability to form trains of varying lengths and additional passenger seats in the head cars, which increases the operator’s revenue.

France took a different approach in the 1970s, with the national operator SNCF and the manufacturer Alstom joining forces to develop the first generation TGV Sud-Est high-speed train.  The French train differed from the Japanese vehicle not only in its higher speed of 260 km/h, but also in its design. The traction equipment was located in the head cars, which served as locomotives. Concentrated traction is a more cost-effective solution, as it allows for simpler construction and easier operation. In an interview with the RAILFLUENCER project, François Lacôte, one of the creators of the TGV, stated that the SNCF was against distributed traction because it would have necessitated a change in the repair approach, as locomotives and intermediate cars were serviced in different depots.

Several manufacturers have opted for concentrated traction, with new generations of vehicles being created on an ongoing basis. The Avelia Horizon, a double-decker concentrated traction train with a design speed of 350 km/h from Alstom, will make its inaugural voyage this year. SNCF placed an order for 115 trains without waiting for the train to be ready, with the first contract awarded back in 2018. The Avelia Horizon will replace the third-generation Duplex, the TGV high-speed train, which has been in operation since the 1990s.

Head motor car of the Avelia Horizon Head motor car of the Avelia Horizon. Source: Alstom

The Avelia Horizon can operate in a seven to nine-car trainset. Its modular interior design allows for easy adaptation to the class of transport required by the customer, reducing the purchase costs by 20% and maintenance costs by 30%, according to Alstom. The developers have implemented a number of measures to reduce the train’s weight, improve its aerodynamics and install more efficient traction equipment. These measures have resulted in a 20% reduction in electricity consumption compared to the Duplex.

However, there has been a lack of interest from foreign buyers in Alstom’s concentrated traction trains. As part of the technology transfer agreement, Hyundai Rotem produces the analogous KTX train in South Korea. The Acela service, which connects Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., is based on the adapted Avelia Horizon.

The Spanish manufacturer Talgo also offers a rolling stock with concentrated traction. The trains are distinguished by a unique running gear: each car is supported by only one pair of independently rotating and self-guiding wheels, located between cars. This technology enables the cars to be lighter than competitors, consume less energy and, according to the manufacturer, cost less.

In 2005, Talgo launched its first high-speed train. The stated design speed of the train is 350 km/h, while in Spain and Saudi Arabia, it is reduced to 300 km/h. In May of this year, the new Talgo Avril train commenced passenger service in Spain. Its prototype was unveiled in 2012, and deliveries were delayed for more than three years.

The Talgo Avril high-speed EMU for the Avlo services on its first route between Barcelona and Madrid The Talgo Avril high-speed EMU for the Avlo services on its first route between Barcelona and Madrid. Source: Miguel Angel Gracia

The new train, capable of reaching 330 km/h, has become the world’s first variable gauge train. Each of the head cars has an output of 4,400 kW. The enlarged body and updated layout of the climatic equipment have enabled a significant increase in capacity, resulting in a record 641 kg of tare per passenger, in contrast to 1 t for Siemens Mobility and Alstom single-deck trains.

Distribute and conquer

Germany was also an early adopter of concentrated traction technology. In the 1980s, a consortium of manufacturers, including Siemens Mobility, developed the first locomotive-powered electric train, the ICE 1, which was followed by the ICE 2. Siemens then offered the market the Velaro distributed traction train, which proved to be extremely commercially successful. The new high-speed vehicles have been well received in Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK, Turkey, Egypt and Russia.

In 2018, the German manufacturer unveiled the Novo, a new Velaro train. This vehicle, with a design speed of 360 km/h, boasts a 15% lighter car body with enhanced aerodynamics, enabling savings of up to 30% in energy consumption compared to the previous generation, and the ability to accommodate 10% more passengers. The first customer to purchase this train was not the national operator Deutsche Bahn, but rather the private US Brightline West. The company has placed an order for ten seven-car trains for the high-speed line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, which is currently under construction.

Rendering of the future high-speed American Pioneer 220 EMU for California Rendering of the future high-speed American Pioneer 220 EMU for California. Source: Siemens Mobility

China, renowned for its extensive high-speed rail network, has commenced operating concentrated traction trains with a design speed of 210–270 km/h. In the mid-2000s, the country underwent a significant shift in its technical policy. In the context of the government’s focus on high-speed rail development, large-scale tenders for rolling stock with distributed traction and a requirement for significant localisation were announced. As a result, contracts were signed with almost all global manufacturers: Alstom, Bombardier Transportation, Siemens Mobility and a Japanese consortium led by Kawasaki.

Under a contract with Siemens Mobility, the production of Velaro was localised at CRRC facilities. The German company agreed to relinquish its intellectual property rights to the final product and to limit its involvement to the supply of components. Several modifications of this platform have become the most widely used trains in operation in China. Some of the trains have a declared design speed of 380 km/h, while the 16-car CRH380BL achieved 487.3 km/h in 2010. This record for serial high-speed trains has not yet been surpassed. Only an experimental five-car train from Alstom and SNCF has reached a higher speed of 574.8 km/h.

In 2010, CRRC developed its own Fuxing high-speed train platform, leveraging its expertise gained through technology transfer. The Fuxing CR400 has a design speed of 400 km/h, but does not accelerate above 350 km/h in operation. In the development of new high-speed trains, China places great importance on digital components. The train features automatic train operation, diagnostics and online condition monitoring systems. The launch of this train marked the beginning of China’s high-speed rolling stock exports. The CR400 commenced operations in Indonesia last year.

The high-speed Fuxing Intelligent train from CRRC The high-speed Fuxing Intelligent train from CRRC. Source: CRRC

The CRRC continues to set new speed records on rails. The next train of the Fuxing platform, the CR450, will have a design speed of 450 km/h and an operational speed of 400 km/h. The prototypes are scheduled for completion this year. Zhao Hongwei, a leading engineer at the China Academy of Railway Sciences, has identified the current challenges facing the project. These include the need to significantly enhance aerodynamics and traction system efficiency to reduce energy consumption, the introduction of new technologies to minimise braking distances and noise levels, and the development of entirely new standards.

The home of high-speed distributed traction, Japan, continues to develop high-speed trains, with the latest one entering service in March this year. The eighth generation train, the E8, from Kawasaki and Hitachi has a design speed of 300 km/h. Another train constructed by the same companies, the experimental ALFA-X, has been undergoing tests for several years to enhance technologies enabling a design speed of 400 km/h and an operating speed of 360 km/h.

Another current priority for Japanese operators is the automatic train operation. It is anticipated that in the late 2020s, routes from depots to stations will allow for GoA4 operation of high-speed trains, meaning the unattended operation. In the mid-2030s, experts expect GoA3 operation on the Tokyo–Niigata line, when the train runs automatically and the driver is present in the cab in case of emergencies.

Modern and future high-speed trains (enlarge)

Despite being a Japanese company, Hitachi has a significant European presence, with one of its main assets being the former AnsaldoBreda facilities in Italy. The Zefiro high-speed trains, developed by Bombardier Transportation in 2021, are manufactured there. Following the acquisition of Bombardier by Alstom, Hitachi acquired a stake in the Canadian company.

The Japanese company’s flagship product on the global market is the Hitachi V300 train with a stated design speed of 360 km/h. The trains have been in operation in Italy since 2015, and are now to be delivered for a new high-speed line in the UK. In the early 2010s, a joint venture in China produced the V380 with a declared design speed of 380 km/h, which has not yet been further developed.

New players

Today, Hitachi and Kawasaki are competing for supplies of the E5 trains with a design speed of 320 km/h for India’s first high-speed railway. The project is financed by a loan from Japan, which has limited the pool of potential suppliers. In light of the rapid development of railway transport, India is considering leveraging this supply experience to develop its own high-speed train.

Russia is developing its high-speed project, which includes the construction of a high-speed railway from Moscow to St. Petersburg and the development and production of high-speed trains. The train is being developed by the Engineering Centre of Railway Transport, a joint venture between Russian Railways and Sinara-Transport Machines. The first Russian high-speed eight-car EMU will be equipped with an AI-based digital control and automatic train operation system, allowing for GoA3 operation. The high-speed train will have a design speed of 360 km/h.

Rendering of a head car of the Russian high-speed train Rendering of a head car of the Russian high-speed train. Source: Russian Railways

In addition to India and Russia, Poland is planning to join the club’s newcomers. It is anticipated that a large order for rolling stock will be fulfilled as part of the national transport hub Solidarity, which encompasses the construction of 2,000 km of high-speed railway lines. The local manufacturer Pesa has expressed its intention to assume a leadership role within the consortium responsible for the development of the train, which will have a speed of 250 km/h, representing the lower limit for high-speed trains.

Rendering of the Türasaş high-speed EMU Rendering of the Türasaş high-speed EMU. Source: Türasaş

Türkiye places a significant reliance on domestic rail technologies. The country’s high-speed lines are serviced by Siemens (300 km/h) and CAF (250 km/h) rolling stock. Türasaş, the national train builder, has announced plans to create a 225 km/h electric train in 2025, with the option of modifying it to high-speed operation standards at a later date.

Time for levitation

The railway world agrees that the speed limits on wheel-rail coupling are almost exhausted. The next stage is magnetic levitation, including vacuum technology, which is known as Hyperloop. Several technical approaches are being developed in this field. So far, only one high-speed maglev line in China, which connects Shanghai with the airport and allows for speeds of up to 431 km/h, is in operation. The line was constructed in the early 2000s using the German Transrapid technology, but despite initial promotion, it has not been expanded.

Prototype of the CRRC maglev train operating at 600 km/h Prototype of the CRRC maglev train operating at 600 km/h. Source: Xinhua

In other words, high-speed maglev technology is still at the experimental research stage, with both Japan and China engaged in systematic activities. Furthermore, the latter is also conducting tests in a vacuum tube. Interest in the technology has also returned to Europe, where the MaDe4Rail research project has recently received funding from the EU. The primary objective of this project is to investigate the potential integration of high-speed maglev systems into existing railway infrastructure. The project is coordinated by the Italian national infrastructure company RFI.

Russia is another major player in the maglev sector, with the Rosmaglev consortium spearheading the development of magnetic levitation. The current activities include the construction of test tracks in St. Petersburg and Yakutia, with a focus on freight transport. At this time, there have been no announcements regarding plans to develop high-speed rolling stock.

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