UN and Rail Operators Propose International Vacuum Train Network

The UN Development Programme, the UIC, the governments of Japan and the EU, and the Japan Railways group have issued a joint release calling for the development of an international network of vacuum tubes in which trains will travel at a kilometer per second, enabling fast, low-emissions intercontinental travel. The system will connect all continents and all major cities of the world in 145 countries. There will be about 400 station stops and 200,000 km of route, including two tunnels across each of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which will sit suspended in the water 50 meters deep, to provide sufficient clearance for shipping.

All of the organizations and companies involved have expressed optimism that the project will take over a large majority of global airline ridership and induce additional traffic due to the faster and more convenient travel. New York-London will be reduced to a travel time of about an hour and forty minutes, and Los Angeles-Tokyo to two and a half hours. Minor cities will require a connection at a major station, but the connections will be easier than on airlines today and the punctuality will be high. In conversations on background, officials have projected about six billion annual travelers and six trillion annual passenger-km by 2040, both about twice the corresponding figures for the global airline industry today. On the highest-trafficked lines, such as between London and Paris, trains will travel every two minutes, at lower speed due to the short distances between cities.

JR Central President Yoshiyuki Kasai said that the technology used by the trains would come from decades of Japanese experiments with maglev technology; maglev trains, he explained, are lighter and more powerful than conventional trains and could travel through vacuum tubes without any friction or air resistance. The only commercial maglev line in the world, the Shanghai Maglev Train connecting Pudong International Airport with a suburb a few subway stops out of city center, uses a different and incompatible technology developed by Siemens. UN Development Programme chair Helen Clark explained that the UN had to make a choice between the JR technology and the Siemens technology, and that the choice of JR’s technology was “purely on the technical merits of very high-speed operation, without regard for financing considerations.” and that JR Central agreed to let go of the patents within five years allowing other companies to build the same technology.

The projected cost of the entire project is, in today’s money, $10 trillion, to be spent over 25 years, though the earliest segments will open by 2025. The Abe administration pledged $1.5 trillion of this, and the UN is seeking a commitment of $2.5 trillion from each of the US and the EU, of which a portion would be spent domestically on connecting the two economic superpower’s own major cities internally but most would be spent on the core intercontinental system. A German official speaking on background said that due to the EU’s precarious sovereign debt situation it would be hard to secure an early commitment; multiple EU officials, speaking anonymously and on background, added that they doubt that Japan can borrow $1.5 trillion at its current debt level and accused the Abe administration of playing politics to ensure that the UN chose Japanese technology over German technology. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged another $1.5 trillion to the project, which the same EU sources attributed played a role in the UN and UIC’s requirement that JR Central let other companies produce the same technology in the future.

A senior official within the Obama administration said that he doubts the US can offer any money for the core system in the near future, but that the US could spend money on building its own domestic network and connecting it to the transoceanic tunnels if Japan and the EU funded them. The estimated cost of the 18,000-kilometer network within the US and Canada is about $900 billion, though a senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration said his agency estimates the network would cost $2 trillion.

The UIC media office, when questioned on the figures, said that the cost estimates come from past costs of European, Chinese, and Japanese high-speed rail infrastructure, inflated for the tighter engineering requirements of higher speed and vacuum tubes. An engineer at French national railroad SNCF added that American costs are higher, but international standards for contracting and supervision by SNCF and other established railroads could reduce costs to international levels.

Clark added that the financing decisions are the most complex, and so far the UN has come up with three tiers of countries: rich countries, such as the US and Japan, which will be expected to contribute money toward the core intercontinental lines as well as subsidies for lines in the poorest countries; middle-income countries, for which she specifically named China and Russia, which will be expected to contribute money only to the lines passing through their own territory and connections; and low-income countries, such as all of Sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of South Africa, which will receive subsidies. China’s pledge of $1.5 trillion is more expensive than the expected cost of the Chinese domestic network of about $800 billion, but China agreed to build connections through nearby countries, including Vietnam, Mongolia, Burma, and the states of Central Asia.

The engineering specs, according both to UIC sources and the JR group’s technical drawings, are of the highest quality, without compromise of speed, capacity, or comfort. The train mockups are wide tubes, with noses that are simple and rounded and look more like those of submarines or planes than like those of high-speed trains. The trains are also going to be wider than any train that currently exists, in order to allow 3+3 seating in economy class and 2+2 seating in first class while maintaining the high comfort levels of rail travel. Seating density in economy class will be comparable to the higher-end premium economy seats on airlines, with a meter of pitch and 55 cm of seat width; in first class, seats will recline fully flat, providing a comfort level intermediate between those of business and first class on intercontinental flights.

Trains will be up to half a kilometer long, with capacity of 2,000 passengers in two-class layout. The full-speed intercontinental lines will have a maximum capacity of a train every four minutes, but key shorter connections with short stop spacing, including London-Paris, will be run at lower speed at a capacity of a train every two minutes. The largest cities, such as New York and London, will be express stations and every train passing through will stop, but most cities will have bypass tracks.

The tracks will also be built to the highest-quality specs, driving up the cost due to the need for extensive tunneling. At a speed of a kilometer per second, the horizontal curve radius must be at a minimum 250 km; the newest conventional high-speed rail lines are built with a curve radius of 7 km. Because the technology is not compatible with conventional railroads, several key pieces of infrastructure will have to duplicate preexisting rail megaprojects, including new tunnels across the English Channel, the Swiss Alps, and the Tsugaru Strait between Hokkaido and Honshu.

However, JR Central’s ongoing project to build an open-air maglev train between Tokyo and Osaka will be folded into this project, and JR Central’s own contribution of $80 billion of private money will be in addition to the Japanese government’s contribution. In countries without preexisting high-speed rail, including the US and UK, the project will replace any domestic conventional high-speed rail program, and in the UK the Cameron administration as well as opposition leader Ed Milliband expressed support for reprogramming the cost of Britain’s planned domestic high-speed line toward a vacuum tube instead.

The passenger experience with booking and security will be more like at regular train stations than at airports. Train station locations will be in or near city centers, generally running under the preexisting train stations in most cities. The UIC confirmed there will be security theater, but only at the level of air travel before the 9/11 attacks, and passengers will not have to take off shoes or jackets; non-passengers will be permitted past security. Because all stations will be built for international traffic, with no separation of international and domestic passengers, all passengers will have to carry valid identification, but only for the purposes of immigration and customs, and passengers whose tickets are domestic will be able to walk through immigration and customs. Because the expected operating costs are low trains are expected to run less than full except at peak travel times, allowing passengers to rebook missed trains at no cost.

The fare is still tentative, but the system will be simple, as on the Shinkansen trains, without the complexities of airline fare. Each segment between two stations will have a set fare going toward paying off construction, and each station will also be able to charge an additional fare chosen freely by the station owner. The fare will be set at a lower rate in low-income countries to allow their citizens to travel. As examples, the UIC said it’s projecting a $280 one-way fare between New York and London, but only a $90 fare between Cairo and Johannesburg, which corresponds to one fifth the rate per kilometer. The projected ridership is such that the long-term financial rate of return is about 2%, making it a profitable investment for the major governments of the first world. The office of UN General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon proposed that first-world sovereign investors agree to only take 1.5% and dedicate any higher profits to foreign aid, but Japan and the EU both said they demand a full share of the profits, and Moon admitted the UN has no real way to enforce profit-sharing.

When questioned about the project’s viability, a high-ranking source at the Obama administration said, “Today we’re not going to be able to fund any of this, but with Japanese and Chinese starter funds there will be initial segments, and I believe that in ten years we’ll be able to pledge money for it, once people in both parties recognize that it’s the future of transportation.”

European officials agree. Sources close to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande both added that once the fiscal crisis is over and the governments of southern Europe have reined in their national debt, the EU will be able to come up with its target $2.5 trillion pledge. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble added, “Our biggest problem is the irresponsibility of Greece, Spain, and other debt crisis countries, but the crisis won’t last forever and afterward we will have a discussion about long-term infrastructure investment.”


  1. Sascha Claus

    several key pieces of infrastructure will have to duplicate preexisting rail megaprojects, including new tunnels across the English Channel, the Swiss Alps, […].

    Note that these facilities are expected to be at capacity at the time when the new Int’l VacTrain opens, so that the vacuum tubes will provide needed relieve for the conversion of the existing tunnels to Vacuum Transrapid. Due to the inherent capacity limits of vacuum tubes, French President Hollande and British Prime Minister Cameron both agree on the need for an additional set of tubes to offer interleaved service on the New York – Paris and London – Berlin/Munich lines.
    Further traffic growth is forecast after the completion of the connecting British Tracked Hovercraft line from Scotland to North Front Airport (LXGB) and the planned Aérothalys that extends the current Amsterdam/Bruxelles – Paris service to Nantes and Bordeaux.

  2. Adirondacker12800

    At a speed of a kilometer per second, the horizontal curve radius must be at a minimum 250 km; the newest conventional high-speed rail lines are built with a curve radius of 7 km.

    Page 42 of Appendix E says it’s 127 km. Maglev can take tighter curves at higher speeds. And the “vacuum” in the tube isn’t a hard vacuum. Theres a cushion of air keeping the train on course.

    • Alon Levy

      I couldn’t find curve radius data for JR-Maglev, but Transrapid has lateral acceleration of about 3.6 m/s^2 in current operation and Siemens claims a capability for 4.3. I went with 4 as a compromise number. (Real-world values for conventional HSR are about 1.6-2; the cutting edge of Talgo and the E5/E6, with the maximum feasible superelevation, is 2.5.)

      • al

        Traveling in a tube means that superelevation can be much higher. At high speed, the train can be up on the 45 degree angle while at low speed it can be 12 degrees.

        More seriously, I wonder if this can be adapted to HSR. I’ve seen curve track panels that have 2 overlapping superelevations. One for low speed and another for high speed.

        • Alon Levy

          The higher the angle, the more people will feel more gravity. Try to add the vectors and you’ll see an extra term crop up. On level track, if the train takes a curve with lateral acceleration a g, or if you will 9.8a \mbox{ms}^{-2}, then the gravity and centrifugal force vectors will combine to a vector of magnitude \sqrt{1 + a^{2}}\cdot g pointing an angle \tan^{-1}a outward from the vertical. You can correct the angle with superelevation, but you can’t correct the extra magnitude of the vector. So if you’re trying to have a 45-degree angle, then you have a = 1 and then on your 100 km curve passengers will feel gravity increase from 1 g to \sqrt{2}\cdot g. In contrast, the maximum comfortable change in gravity for passengers is about 0.12 g, corresponding to 7″ of untilted cant deficiency, and even that’s a spill-your-drink ride; that corresponds to about a = 0.5, or a 200 km curve. The standard I wrote in the post, a = 0.4, is equivalent to about 4.5″ of untilted cant deficiency.

  3. EngineerScotty

    I’m a bit confused. Are the trains going to be propelled by air pressure, like the pneumatic tubes found at many banks’ drive-through windows, or is the vacuum in the tunnels simply to lower the wind resistance met by a conventionally-powered maglev?


  4. Jonathan R.

    This sounds great, but will the New York station be below Penn Station or Grand Central or somewhere else entirely?

          • Adirondacker12800

            Put it deep under 37th and Broadway. The escalators at the north end of the concourse can come up in Grand Central. The escalators in the center of the concourse can come up at the PABT. The escalators at the south end of the concourse can come up in Penn Station.

  5. Eric

    “The trains are also going to be wider than any train that currently exists, in order to allow 3+3 seating in economy class and 2+2 seating in first class”

    Upon reading this I had the idea that you were describing airplanes as if they were an innovative form of train… that idea will have to wait for another April 1.

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