All Aboard the Panda Express, China’s Latest Transit Innovation

2016-12-12 12:18:17

A vision for the future of transportation began its testing phase in southwestern China’s Sichuan province last month: a suspended monorail train emblazoned with the image of a giant panda.

The Sky Train, as the battery-powered vehicle is called, took only four months to construct — a timetable that project leader Zhai Wangming called “a miracle” when speaking with Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper. A team of engineers and designers at Southwest Jiaotong University, in the provincial capital of Chengdu, collaborated with seven different state-owned enterprises for the project.

Zhai, a professor at the university, said that the final product will be green, cheap, safe, and quiet. A prototype began testing on Nov. 21, and once fully operational, the Sky Train will carry 80 passengers per carriage at about 35 kilometers per hour — noticeably slower than most public transit systems.

The Sky Train runs along a 1.4-kilometer track during a test run in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Nov. 21, 2016. IC

The Sky Train runs along a 1.4-kilometer track during a test run in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Nov. 21, 2016. IC

Earlier this year, another prototype that glided above traffic — the Transit Elevated Bus — captured global attention. Ultimately, however, the project flopped, and the bus now sits idle, its testing track blocking a large portions of the roads the innovation sought to unclog.

The Zhongtang Sky Train Group, formed in April to undertake the project, is hoping their invention will be more successful. First, the design must prove its fitness over at least 10,000 kilometers of travel, which is expected to take at least half a year. Then, as a pilot program, the Sky Train will move into the city, where operation, management, and profit will be taken into consideration.

Wang Kai, vice president of Zhongtan Group, told The Paper that the train and the monorail it hangs from are designed to compete on cost. Assembly will be cheap and efficient due to the purchase of standardized, domestically manufactured components, he said. Moreover, the suspended monorail system takes up little space, and, at 150 million yuan ($22 million) per kilometer, costs are about four times less than an equivalent distance of subway track.

Another money-saver is the fact that the train runs on a battery, which can be charged overnight, when electricity is cheaper. It also eliminates the need for high-voltage wires, which Wang said are a safety risk and are rarely allowed by local governments. On the other hand, the battery has just a four-hour charge, which means passengers are potentially at risk of being stranded in the elevated panda cars — a contingency for which the train’s designers say they have prepared by developing a rescue protocol.

Eyeing the relatively low top-speed of the Sky Train, some net users have wondered whether it might be better-suited for sightseeing than for public transport. Chengdu, Shanghai, and Jiuzhaigou — a nature park popular with tourists — have expressed interest in Sky Trains, although Zhongtan Group has yet to sign any contracts.

For now, the sole panda Sky Train glides back and forth in an economic development zone on the outskirts of Chengdu, handling loose curves and modest slopes with ease as it prepares for life beyond its U-shaped test track.

With contributions from Wang Yiwei.

(Header image: The Sky Train runs along a 1.4-kilometer track during a test run in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Nov. 21, 2016. Lu Jia/West China City Daily/VCG)