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.