China All-In with Carbon Fiber Mass Transit

It wasn’t too long ago that an upstart Chinese mass transit company introduced the first-ever carbon fiber bus for city use. That was impressive enough, but Chinese engineers are not resting on their laurels. Another company – CRRC Corporation Limited – recently made waves at the Innotrans 2018 show by introducing an all-carbon fiber light rail vehicle they call ‘CETROVO’.

Industry observers say it is clear that China is all-in when it comes to carbon fiber mass transit. CRRC’s CETROVO project is proof of that commitment. According to news reports, CETROVO is not just a carbon fiber car train. It is an entirely new piece of technology that combines state-of-the-art building materials with the latest in mass transit technology. It is assumed that CRRC has plans to sell the vehicles worldwide, making them a global leader in the industry.

Weight Reductions and Greater Efficiency

CETROVO is a technological wonder from a fabricating standpoint. To start with, the vehicle is 13% lighter than the lightest models CRRC has previously made. It is also more energy-efficient at the same time. All the performance improvements built in to CETROVO have been implemented thanks to carbon fiber.

CRRC uses a carbon fiber composite material to achieve a 30% weight reduction of CENTOVO’s body, equipment cabinet, and driver cab. The weight of the bogie frame has been reduced by 40%. But that’s not all. Tests showed that the carbon fiber body performs well against fatigue, is very tolerant to weather conditions, and resists corrosion. CRRC insists that the new vehicle has at least a 30-year service life with minimal maintenance.

Last but not least is the fact that the lighter rail car will put less stress on metro track lines. That translates into fewer track repairs, lower maintenance costs, and longer track life.

Short Term Cost vs. Long Term Gain

CRRC acknowledges that the cost of the materials needed to build CETROVO is substantially higher than if they had used more traditional materials. However, the company is trading a short-term cost increase for long term gain. They believe investing in more expensive materials now will generate financial benefits down the road.

Rock West Composites, a Utah company that specializes in carbon fiber products, says the short-term cost vs. long term gain question is something manufacturers and fabricators have to wrestle with during the early stages of design. Car companies wrestle with it; aerospace companies wrestle with it; even sporting goods manufacturers have to figure out whether carbon fiber is worth investing in or not.

In the short term, CETROVO is going to cost customers more. How much more no one really knows at this point. But let’s say carbon fiber drives up the cost of the light rail car by 25%. Customers have to determine whether energy savings, lower maintenance costs, and longer car and track life will produce enough savings to offset the higher price.

CRRC is betting that the savings CENTROVO generates will cover its higher price tag, and then some. Their expectation is not unreasonable. A light rail car with a 30-year lifespan is always good for the bottom line. It is even better if the car requires very little maintenance to keep it on the rails.

There is no doubt that Chinese mass transit manufacturers are all-in with carbon fiber. CRRC has invested quite a bit in the CENTROVO project. Now it’s up to the company’s sales force to make customers aware of the benefits of purchasing the car. If it shows early signs of favorable adoption among buyers, CRRC might just find itself shipping the cars all over the world.