China’s financial- and safety-scandal plagued high-speed rail system is getting its mojo back. It has started testing its first high-speed rail line capable of operating in bitterly cold weather. The test run was from Harbin to Dalian through three northeastern provinces where winter temperatures can fall to -35° Celsius.
The track is engineered to be operable in temperatures down to -40° Celsius with trains running at an average speed of 350 kilometers an hour (kph). The test train, seen to the right in its shed ahead of the run, covered the 920 kilometer journey in three hours, averaging 300 kph, state media said.
Conventional rails are susceptible to cracking in cold weather and warping in hot. China’s new track is also intended to be operable in extreme heat, up to 40° Celsius. That would make it suitable for use in the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau, where temperatures can swing between the two extremes in a single day. That is a double challenge for a railway. Beyond having to operate in a region of permafrost and the associated problems of icing and snow drifts, rail operators also face the problem of rising temperatures threatening track bed stability. The Qinghai-Tibet railway, the world’s highest, is already familiar with both.
Just because China will have trains that can speed through an extremely cold day — and operate in icy weather and in conditions of poor visibility that road traffic couldn’t safely do at any speed — it doesn’t mean it can do the same with the costs of doing so. Running rail services in cold weather is expensive, as rail companies with long experience of harsh winter conditions, such as Norway, Canada and Switzerland can testify.
Not that that may bother China’s railmen too much. They have become addicted to throwing vast sums of money at having a rail network that is fastest and biggest. Coldest and hottest are just two more superlatives.