Where's My Maglev Train?
The only existing high-speed rail in the U.S. is Amtrak's Acela Express, which takes close to three hours to travel between Washington, D.C. and New York City. But travel time could drop to an hour if Japan Railway succeeds in bringing the levitating Maglev train the world's fastest train to the U.S. Northeast.
In China, a magnetic levitation train coasts along 18 miles from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the outskirts of the city at speeds up to 268 miles per hour. Maglev technology is a sci-fi staple that has been touted for decades, but this demonstration line is the only commercial operation running on the planet.
Instead of steel wheels on steel rails, maglev relies on magnets for levitation and propulsion. The train set uses principles of magnetic attraction and repulsion to hover above the track and to be propelled forward.
The technological concept has been around more than 100 years. However, it was in the 1940s that researchers in various countries developed the linear motor, which produces a force along its length rather than a rotation, or torque, that's produced by traditional motors. The development enabled not just maglev, but also roller coasters and monorails.
"Maglev is physically, absolutely feasible," said Vukan R. Vuchic, Emeritus professor of transportation systems at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's a matter of economics."
A bumpy ride
In Shanghai, the demonstration project was initially meant to prove the concept and then be adopted for a Beijing to Shanghai line. Instead, traditional steel-on-steel high-speed rail won the contract. In Germany, a proposed Berlin to Hamburg maglev line was scrapped in favor of high-speed rail as well.
The upfront costs are higher, yet proponents of maglev argue that the ultimate operating costs are lower because there is no friction. But Vuchic told InnovationNewsDaily that there is no research to show that is true, and that maglev uses more energy than steel rail systems. The claim of a quiet, smooth ride is also questionable, said Vuchic, as the noise comes from the train itself speeding along through the air and not from the wheels on the track.
Perhaps an even larger issue is that unlike high-speed rail, maglev systems cannot be integrated into any existing rail infrastructure. Most cities are looking for intercity rail systems to be able to connect to local transit; something that maglev would not be able to do.
Losing its edge
Finally, some critics of rail argue that high-speed rail is simply a faster version of an outdated technology. But high-speed rail has continued to evolve to the point where trains regularly run at nearly 200 mph, compared to China's maglev which regularly operates just 40 miles per hour faster. "The difference is not as great as it used to be," said Vuchic. "The main advantage [of maglev] has decreased greatly and the main disadvantage has increased greatly."
Although high-speed rail speeds are closing in on maglev, governments continue to consider the latter. Earlier this year, Japan's Transport Minister approved a 9 trillion yen ($112 billion) maglev train between Tokyo and Osaka. The train, to be completed in 2045, will reported run at more than 300 miles per hour over 320 miles.
Like other maglev projects, Vuchic warns to not believe it until you see it. The project has been in development since the 1970s. "They claim they want to build the Osaka to Tokyo line but I've been hearing [about it] for at least six years," he said. "They're not building yet."
This story is part of our series "Where's My Future?" that looks at areas of technology that have failed to catch up with the predictions of science fiction. The rest of the series can be found here.