Tuesday, December 29, 2009

China High-Speed Rail project

Someone in my family works for Siemens as a senior member of the China High-Speed Rail project (not to be confused with the China Maglev project, for which Siemens is also a partner). We've talked about it quite often - and fairly extensively yesterday. Here are a few details:

The technologies of all four major high-speed rail system in the world - Germany's ICE, Japan's Sinkansen, France's TGV and Canada's Bombardier (in order of overall technological advancement) - have come together in China, though rather reluctantly. When the Chinese started the project years ago, they did something very clever: Instead of picking one of the four systems (which is what people normally do), they gave all four a pilot contract each. The one showing the best result in its pilot would then be chosen as the main partner, they said, making all four competing like crazy - routinely investing more resources than they've originally planed. The Chinese are not concerned about significant waste due to incompatibility between the pilot products, since all four are building to the specs written by the Chinese.

Now, years later, the Canadians and the French are practically washed out, even though some of their technologies have contributed to the new Chinese system. The Germans and the Japanese remain - as initially expected - the main competitors - or, reluctant partners for the Chinese. The vast majority of heavy lifting on the technological front is done by the Germans (which was also expected, since even the Japanese system was originally based on German designs), but the Japanese have the advantage that their pilot has started earlier (the Chinese intentionally delayed the German pilot in order to ransom a below-value price).

The record speed, for example, was achieved using two joined trains - of four sections each - built by Siemens in Germany and put together in China. Those are the only two German trains current available for this route. All the other trains are Japanese, and they're what people see on most new footages. But the top speed the Japanese trains (on the same route) can reach are significantly lower - about 350 km/h, or >10% less than the German record. Plus, while the German rains got to 395 km/h in standard configuration - with two tracking (active) and two tracked (passive) sections in each train - the Japanese had to cheat - using three tracking and only one tracked section in each train - in order to reach their 350 km/h.

As someone has mentioned above, there exist a TGV speed record that's much higher still, but that's a record nobody in the industry takes seriously, because it was achieved with a totally crazy, not nearly practical configuration of train sections. It's a fake number, period.

The bottom line is, for the original cost of one project, China has managed to get more than twice the amount worth of know-how (all legally via proper technology transfer contracts), and is now itself among the leading players of the industry. For the upcoming US high-speed rail system, the Chinese has offered a bid with a price tag 1/3 lower than anybody else...

No comments: