Maglev Trains Maglev Trains: Why are we not riding trains at a speed of 2,900 km/h yet?
Ultra-fast rail travel is proven possible with Maglev trains, but only one passenger system is currently operational worldwide at a fraction of its potential. What is Maglev all about, what challenges does it face, and where is the industry going?
In the 1790s, it took six days to travel the 248 kilometers (216 miles) between Boston and New York by horseback on rutted roads. Today, an express train takes barely three and a half hours to make the same trip. Travel has come a long way in a relatively short time, but the technology exists to reduce travel time measurements to minutes instead of hours.
Maglev trains have been around for decades and are quieter and smoother than traditional railway travel. They're also capable of extreme speeds. So why haven't we seen Maglev implemented more than it has? And hey, what's even a Maglev Train?
What's a Maglev Train?
The name 'Maglev' is a contraction of magnetic levitation. Quite literally, the force that repels two magnets is harnessed to levitate multi-ton train cars off their track. Because Maglev trains ride above the track and not on it, there's nearly no friction or drag to slow down travel. Since electromagnets are a significant component in the Maglev infrastructure, Maglev trains are impacting the environment less negatively than diesel-powered rail travel does.
Though the Maglev trains don't touch the track, they aren't entirely free from it. Picture the track shaped as a C where the ends of the C act as retainers for the train's undercarriage.
Brief outline of Maglev Train's history
Linear induction motor technology was first developed in the late 1940s by a British electrical engineer, which is the basis of magnetic levitation systems. In the early '70s, advancements in magnets allowed for linear motors to both levitate and generate forward thrust. Test tracks in Hamburg, Germany, and Ramenskoye, Russia, were built to continue working on the practical applications.
The first Maglev monorail track opened in 1984 between the Birmingham Airport and railway station, it was a shy 600 meters long.
Maglev Trains' present situation
The Birmingham track was officially decommissioned in 1995 due to reliability issues. And the Maglev Train in Emsland, Germany, called M-Bahn, that ran between Dorpen and Lathen was dismantled in 2006, after 22 years in service.
Today, there are only three Maglev trains in operation.
- Japan's HSST (High-Speed Surface Transport) train is a short 9.2-kilometer (5.7-mile) loop from Fujigaoka Station through Nagatuke Town to Yagusa Station in Toyota City.
- A second Japanese maglev, the Linimo Line, operates in Aichi Prefecture near Nagoya that's 8.9 kilometers (5.5 miles) long and carries more than 16,000 passengers daily.
- South Korea also has a Maglev train that links Incheon International Airport to Yeongjong Island. It's currently 6.1 kilometers (3.8 miles) long, with two additional stages planned for an additional 47.1 kilometers (29.2 miles) of track.
The current speed record for Maglev trains is held by the Linimo Line in Japan at 603 km/h (375 mph).
What is holding Maglev back?
While Maglev trains require minimal maintenance, aren't affected by weather, and are capable of higher speeds. Maglev is, however, partly too good to be true.
There are a couple main reasons why Maglev hasn't received widespread adoption:
- High costs. Japan is developing a new Chuo Shinkansen bullet train on a 286-kilometer-long (178-mile-long) line that's mostly underground. It comes with a price tag of almost $75 billion US. It's estimated to be around $100 million per mile to build.
- Electrical infrastructure. The electrical supply requirements for Maglev trains are 30 percent higher than regular light rail, which would put a strain on the grid.
- Profitability. With exorbitant development costs, is it ever possible for a Maglev to turn a profit?
Are high-speed trains safe?
Remember the M-Bahn Maglev train in Germany that shuttered in 2006? It did so after a tragic accident where 23 people lost their lives that was later determined to have been caused by human error. Safety is always of the highest importance. However, when the speed of travel is about twice that of a 'normal' train (the M-Bahn Maglev train had a maximum speed of 430 km/h (267 mph)), safety measurements can not be compromised even a nano bit.
More than any other factor, air resistance hinders development. At speeds beyond 400 km/h (248.5 mph), more than 83 percent of energy is lost due to air resistance. Furthermore, high air resistance makes travel at ultra-fast speeds unpredictable.
In China, scientists at Southwest Jiaotong University have built a maglev train that is said to be capable of 2,900 km/h (1,800 mph). The train track is built in a vacuum tunnel to reduce wind resistance. However, the Southwest Jiaotong University's Maglev Train's said top-speed hasn't been tested in reality yet.
What does the future hold for Maglev Trains?
Maglev technology is brilliant and can serve many purposes. However, for now, and for the foreseeable future, costs restrict widespread implementation. Likely, we'll see it adapted for short-range shuttle use in high-density areas rather than transcontinental travel.