Edge of Innovation

Maglev – Whatever happened to floating super trains?

The first rail systems appeared in England during the late 18th century, and while the steam locomotives that chugged along them have since been replaced by diesel engines and electric trains, railway technology hasn’t fundamentally changed in over 200 years. Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) technology was supposed to replace it.

Look back to the 1980s and Maglev had the potential to whoosh trains across the UK on a cushion of air, hitting speeds of over 300mph. If things had turned out differently, the 10.45 train from London Paddington to Cardiff Central could have made the two-hour journey to the Welsh capital in less than 60 minutes.

So what happened? British engineer Eric Laithwaite invented a working linear induction motor that could generate electromagnetic lift and movement back in the 1940s. Britain was also the first country to construct a commercial maglev service (albeit a short, slow one) between Birmingham International Airport and the nearby railway station in 1984.

While Britain struggles to improve its Victorian-era rail network, the Chinese and the Japanese have continued to develop the technology. In November, the latest Japanese maglev train carried 100 passengers between Uenohara and Fuefuki at speeds in excess of 311 mph (500 km/h). That’s almost twice as fast as Japan’s famous bullet trains and 70 km/h faster than the Shanghai Maglev.

After this successful test run, the Central Japan Railway Co (JR Tokai) hopes to have a $50 billion maglev route between Tokyo and Nagoya completed by 2027, replacing the current bullet train services and shortening a 350km journey from three hours to about 40 minutes. An extension to Osaka is planned to open by 2045.

There seems to be no appetite for maglev in the UK and Europe and it’s easy to see why. For countries with extensive existing rail networks, replacing traditional rails with maglev tracks has always proved too expensive. A maglev line requires a straight and level track and could not always follow current rail routes.

There’s also an argument that rail can still compete with maglev technology in terms of raw speed. According to Guinness World Records, the highest speed recorded by a French TGV on a rail system is an incredible 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph), even faster than the Uenohara/Fuefuki maglev test.

While maglev won’t replace traditional rail in the UK, perhaps the future of rail travel lies in super-maglev technology. Scientists at Southwest Jiaotong University in China have proposed operating maglev trains in a vacuum tube, which reduces air resistance and could allow trains to reach an astonishing top speed of 1,800 mph (2,900 km/h). That’s three times the cruising speed of a Boeing 777!



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