2013-01-02

Co.Exist

300 MPH Maglev Trains Pick Up Speed Around The World

But will we ever see them in the U.S.? Given our horrible record with rail investment, you may have to cross an ocean to try out truly high-speed rail. But here’s to dreaming.

Conventional "steel wheel" train technology has reached the end of its evolution: Modern tweaking of rails and controls has only squeezed out another 70 mph or so of speed while raising maintenance costs.

So, after decades in the doldrums, maglev technology—which uses powerful magnets to suspend a train above or below the tracks, eliminating friction and resulting in higher top speeds—seems to be gaining steam (as it were) again. Two commercial maglev lines operate in China and Japan, and many more are in the works. New systems are scheduled to come online in Beijing, China and Seoul, Korea in the coming months, while plans are being drawn up for Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Europe, Australia, and the U.S., reports the BBC. In Germany, Munich has announced its own 25-mile maglev line, and Orlando, Florida this month tentatively approved a privately owned and operated maglev line.

The technology is advancing as well. Japan unveiled its maglev train prototype Series L0 last month, which will whip passengers out of central Tokyo at 311 mph (earlier models set a world speed record of 361 mph for the technology) once commercial services roll out in 2027. In the U.S., General Atomics has competed a test program on its California test track over the last five years in conjunction with the Department of Transportation. "That test program was very successful. We completed everything we can do on a test track of this type," said General Atomics’ director of maglev systems, Sam Gurol, in Popular Mechanics. "The technology is ready to go to the next step. That is a demonstration system carrying either real passengers or cargo."

But money and politics—not efficiency—will decide maglev’s fate. Massive public commitments of cash are needed to build a system for the U.S. (or anywhere), since the cost per mile of high-speed rail is anywhere from $5 million to $100 million. While Japan has offered to help bankroll part of a U.S. project, President Obama’s proposed $13 billion-dollar high-speed rail travel system for the U.S. remains mired in budget fights and debates over transit investments.

As proposals for U.S. maglev transit routinely rise and disappear again, the U.S. may see other countries race ahead of it. Amtrak’s flagship Acela Express between New York and Washington, D.C., while theoretically capable of speeds of up to 150 mph, crawls along at an average speed to 86 mph. And a proposal to make the Northeastern Corridor truly high-speed remains just that. It’s a shame because, as we’ve seen, high-speed rail can mean serious economic development.

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3 Comments

  • Archie Leach

    (cont.)

    The costs of "standard" steel wheeled high speed rail is already so high as it is that high speed rail advocates thus don't dare to even bring up maglev as they are already barely able to even push through the standard high speed trains WHICH ARE 3 TIMES CHEAPER THAN MAGLEV.

    That's why maglev isn't being built anywhere in the world.

  • Archie Leach

    This article is fairly typical of the lyrical foaming about "maglev is next god".

    The Shanghai maglev is a dead end. The planned extension of the Shanghai maglev died when China Railways extended the route using standard high speed steel wheels to steel rail. As a result, the Shanghai maglev is a defacto white elephant with it relegated to being nothing more than a tourist attractions for both domestic Chinese tourists and western tourists.

    Then there's the frothy LIE that maglev "operates in Japan". Nothing could be further from the truth: the maglev in Japan is on a test track and only carries visitors as a tourist attraction ala the Shanghai maglev.

    The reality is that maglev is sitting on the shelf because every reputable cost estimate for maglev comes up with costs 3 TIMES THE COST OF STANDARD STEEL WHEEL HIGH SPEED TRAINS.

    (cont.)

  • John Brunt Baker

    The Japanese train is going to cost over $200 million per mile. So, writers should quit low-balling the costs in articles such as this one. The costs are prohibitive. A single line across the US would run about a trillion bucks, for a train that would -- not counting the stops along the way -- double the transit time compared to air travel.