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The Quest for High-Speed, Environmentally-Friendly, and Socially-Responsible Travel Options Demands Innovation.
Is high-speed rail the answer to this travel conundrum? Are new technologies necessary? And what about Maglev or Hyperloop?
A view of the low-speed maglev in Nagoya, Japan.
Maglev refers to a form of train using electromagnets to move a train along a track.
One set of magnets “floats” or repels the train from the track; another moves the elevated train along the track. In some designs, another set of electromagnets repels the train from the track to levitate it above the track. The benefit: trains run at faster speeds while using less energy, thanks to the removal of standard “steel wheel on steel rail” friction.
Research from the 1960s and before has proven the possibility of maglev transportation systems. But that was fifty years ago, and maglev transport systems now operate in only three counties: Japan (Nagoya), China (Beijing and Chengdu), and South Korea (Seoul). Most of those are considered “low-speed,” operating at maximum speeds under 100 mph. Only one —China’s Shanghai Transrapid—qualifies as high-speed. If maglev has been proven to work, why hasn’t it become more widespread?
Maglev: Technological Promise and Practical Hurdles
Maglev promises enviable speed, but with significant premiums in construction costs compared to high-speed rail, and it has yet to meet with large scale adoption.
The maglev concept has been tested and proven feasible in both high- and low- speed constructions, but maglev systems have not yet been widely built.
Currently, two principal versions of high-speed maglev technology are in operation or under development worldwide: the Transrapid and the superconducting (SC) maglevs. These maglev investments are consistently focused on connecting huge, dense cities close enough to one another that traditional air travel offers limited time savings at enormous environmental costs. In these contexts, the clean, convenient, high-speed travel promised by maglev systems has the potential to generate sufficient demand and ridership to prove commercially viable.
The Shanghai maglev opened in 2004 as a demonstration of the technology.
German-Developed Shanghai Transrapid Maglev
The oldest (and only high-speed) commercial maglev train in operation, the Shanghai Transrapid, has run at speeds up to 270 mph from Shanghai Airport to Shanghai’s outskirts (19 mi) since 2003.
The Transrapid is a German-developed high-speed monorail utilizing an electromagnetic suspension (EMS) system, with testing beginning in 1987 and planning dating back to 1969. While Germany decided not to develop this design at scale, China did build out the Shanghai airport segment for commercial use, originally intending to provide a rapid solution for travelers to move the 175+ km between Shanghai and Hangzhou airports. Never extended beyond the initial Shanghai leg, China suspended its development following public resistance and cost concerns, instead opting for high-speed rail to connect Shanghai and Hangzhou. Since then, China has built 23,500 miles of conventional high-speed rail, with the fastest trains operating at 217 mph.
This doesn’t mean that China has completely abandoned maglev technology or settled for the Transrapid model exclusively. The country has two competing designs for high-speed maglevs currently undergoing development and testing. The CRRC 600 maglev in Qingdao is reportedly capable of traveling up to 600 km/h (370 mph). A second design unveiled in Chengdu is designed for 620 km/h (390 mph), a potential record speed demonstrated in a run on a 165-metre (180 yd) test track. While China continues experimenting with various maglev systems, the only one to reach commercial implementation remains the Shanghai Transrapid.
Japan’s most prominent railways, although often misconstrued as maglev, are part of an extensive network of high-speed railways that regularly reach speeds of 200+ mph.
The country is, however, currently building a superconducting high-speed maglev (SCMaglev) project from Nagoya to Shinagawa, anticipated for commercial operation some time after 2027 and with plans for eventual extension to Osaka. It uses a different design than the Transrapid, an electrodynamic suspension (EDS) system based on the repelling force of magnets. Using super-cooled, superconducting electromagnets, the EDS approach reduces energy use overall. Japan has invested decades of development and over 1 million miles of testing in this design, dating back to the 1980s. The SCMaglev has already achieved rail landspeed records, reaching 375 mph in a short-range test. It regularly operates over longer testing runs at 311 mph, outpacing all other high-speed maglevs in operation.
The first segment of the Tokyo – Nagoya SC Maglev has been the testbed for perfecting the technology. Photo: Rick Harnish
Japan’s SCMaglev Route
A majority of Japan’s SCMaglev route from Nagoya to Shinagawa will run through underground tunnels, creating the lengthy straightaways necessary for trains to operate at high-speeds—without competing with other public and private developments for right-of-way and land use.
In America, the Northeast Corridor SCMaglev project has completed a draft Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed line to connect Washington D.C. and downtown Baltimore. Eventually, the project aims to connect D.C. and New York City in one hour, replacing tens of thousands of vehicle trips annually and easing transportation gridlock throughout the Northeast Corridor. This proposed system plans to utilize the SC Maglev technology and ‘trough’ track model, with a majority of the initial segment slated for construction in underground tunnels. To facilitate so-called “last-mile” transportation, the Northeast Corridor project integrates connections to local subways or light rail, including a proposed station under Baltimore’s BWI airport.
D.C. to NYC, Nagoya to Shinagawa or Osaka—these represent heavily travelled routes between major urban centers. In contexts like these, maglev seems poised for increased implementation, as these regions can justify immense investments based on potential ridership. It remains to be seen how these projects will develop, and if maglev will spread beyond these specific contexts.
What about Hyperloop?
Hyperloop refers to a Maglev train system where maglev “pods” run through evacuated tubes, removing air resistance and allowing for projected speeds of 750+ mph.
First proposed and studied in the 1960s, the concept of hyperloop gained popularity after Elon Musk promoted it in 2012. Hyperloop’s eye-popping top speeds remain theoretical, despite decades of testing. No hyperloop system has made it beyond testing.
Lots of questions remain about hyperloop’s viability, including how to protect and evacuate passengers in the event of a crash, and how to maintain a long-distance airtight seal (or deal with potential failures of this seal). Proposed hyperloop designs also rely on small ‘pods’ instead of larger train cars, limiting any eventual system’s passenger capacity. In addition to the challenges maglev has faced, hyperloop must find ways to maintain an airtight seal over long distances. No small feat, and one that increases the expenses of traditional maglev by several magnitudes. There are safety challenges as well, including that a vacuum tube failure could crush a passenger-bearing pod to dust. Additionally, hyperloop requires lengthy straight rights-of-way for deployment, and in much lengthier segments than high-speed rail, which presents the most challenging hurdle from a policy perspective.
The Policy Crux for High-Speed Rail and Maglev Projects
The biggest hurdle to building high-speed rail is a policy issue, not a technological one. There isn’t yet the political will to acquire the needed right-of-way.
To reach and maintain high speeds, trains need stretches of straight track and long, swooping curves. Doing this over long distances requires extensive right of way agreements for such developments, an often complex and expensive process requiring negotiations with lots of individual landowners and communities.
While conceptually offering higher speeds, maglev technology doesn’t make the right-of-way issue any less complicated. To reach the higher maximum speeds promised by maglev or hyperloop systems, long, straight, uninterrupted rights of way becomes more important, not less. And, since maglev or hyperloop systems are incompatible with current rail or mass transit infrastructure, the need for additional facilities and new rights of way are greater still.
Application Potential for Maglev and High-Speed Rail
As recent history demonstrates, maglev makes sense and offers speed advantages in limited applications.
These systems have an inherent hurdle to widespread adoption: they’re incompatible with preexisting railroad infrastructure. Conversely, this is high-speed rail’s biggest strength. High-speed rail runs on the same standard track gauge as conventional railroads. With technology and aerodynamics as advanced as anything proposed for maglev, high-speed rail still works with railroad infrastructure built almost two centuries ago. This increases the scalability and connectivity of investments in high-speed rail. Preexisting bridges, tunnels, stations, railyards –– all are potentially compatible with high-speed rail. A maglev system requires recreating everything from the ground-up. This is why investors and policymakers consistently choose high-speed rail.
We urgently need fast, frequent and affordable rail transportation. The added urgency of climate change favors a ready-to-implement solution for clean, fast, frequent, and affordable transportation. The technology and innovation needed in high-speed transportation already exists –– it just requires greater scale, greater investment, and widespread support to reach its potential.