How Maglev Trains Work


Maglev Technology In Use

A Transrapid train at the Emsland, Germany test facility.
A Transrapid train at the Emsland, Germany test facility.

While maglev transportation was first proposed more than a century ago, the first commercial maglev train didn't become a reality until 1984, when a low-speed maglev shuttle became operational between the United Kingdom's Birmingham International railway station and an airport terminal of Birmingham International Airport. Since then, various maglev projects have started, stalled, or been outright abandoned. However, there are currently six commercial maglev lines, and they're all located in South Korea, Japan and China.

The fact that maglev systems are fast, smooth and efficient doesn't change one crippling fact – these systems are incredibly expensive to build. U.S. cities from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh to San Diego had maglev line plans in the works, but the expense of building a maglev transportation system (roughly $50 million to $200 million per mile) has been prohibitive and eventually killed off most of the proposed projects. Some critics lambast maglev projects as costs perhaps five times as much as traditional rail lines. But proponents point out that the cost of operating these trains is, in some cases, up to 70 percent less than with old-school train technology [sources: Hall, Hidekazu and Nobuo].

It doesn't help that some high-profile projects have flopped. The administration at Old Dominion University in Virginia had hoped to have a super shuttle zipping students back and forth across campus starting back in the fall semester of 2002, but the train did a few test runs and never really approached the 40 mph (64 kph) speeds it promised. The train stations were finally deconstructed in 2010 but parts of the elevated track system still stands, a testament to a $16 million failure [source: Kidd].

But other projects persist. One ambitious group wants to build a 40-mile (64-kilometer) stretch from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, and the idea has plenty of proponents, but the project is expected to cost up to $15 billion. The concept's exorbitant price tag might be laughable just about anywhere else in the world, but this region's soul-crushing gridlock and limited space means city planners and engineers need an innovative solution, and a super-fast maglev system might be the best option. A key selling point – an expansion to this project could connect to Washington to New York city and cut travel times to just 60 minutes, a speedy commute that could transform commerce and travel in the Northeast [sources: Lazo, Northeast Maglev].

In Asia, though, the maglev boom is essentially already underway. Japan is working feverishly on a Tokyo-to-Osaka route that may open by 2037. When it's complete, the train will slash the nearly three hour trip to just 67 minutes [source: Reuters].

China is seriously considering dozens of potential maglev routes, all of them in congested areas that require high-capacity mass transportation. These won't be high-speed trains. Instead, they'll move lots of people over shorter distances at lower speeds. Nevertheless, China manufactures all of its own maglev technologies and is about to unveil a third-generation commercial maglev line with a top speed of around 125 mph (201 kph) and – unlike previous versions – is completely driverless, relying instead on computer sensors for acceleration and braking (The country already has some maglev trains in operation but they need a driver.) [source: Wong].

It's impossible to know exactly how maglevs will figure into the future of human transportation. Advances in self-driving cars and air travel may complicate the deployment of maglev lines. If the hyperloop industry manages to generate momentum, it could disrupt all sorts of transportation systems. And some engineers suspect that even flying cars, though incredibly pricey, might trump rail systems in the future because they don't need massive infrastructure projects to get off the ground.

Perhaps in just a decade or two, nations around the world will have come to a verdict on maglev trains. Maybe they'll become a linchpin of high-speed travel, or simply pet projects that serve just fragments of certain populations in crowded urban area. Or perhaps they'll simply fade into history, a nearly magical form of levitation technology that just never really took off.

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Sources

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