Big in Japan: High-Speed Magnetic Levitation Trains0

Michael d'Estries | Mon Aug 22 2011 |

If you had the power to travel over 300 miles in less time than it takes to watch the nightly news, without using a single tank of gas, how would that change your life? Would it be easier to maintain business relationships or stay connected with loved ones?

Japanese citizens are about to find out.

After decades of research and development, delays, and financial hand-wringing, Japan has finally given the green light for construction of a high-speed magnetic levitation line connecting the cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka.

For anyone who’s ever enjoyed high-speed rail around the world, maglev trains not only feature a quieter ride, but also faster arrival times with cruising speeds exceeding 300 mph. When completed, the trip from Tokyo to Osaka will cover 320 miles and take roughly one hour.  That same trip today would take roughly 2 hours and 20 minutes when riding on the “Nozomi Super Express.”

How it works

The maglev levitation train system works by utilizing magnetized coils running along a track (or guideway) that repel large superconducting magnets in the train’s undercarriage and allow it to levitate almost 4 inches off the ground. Power supplied to the coils in the guideway then creates polarizing forces that pull and push the train along. As the only resistance is air, one of the major selling points for maglev technology is less wear and tear resulting in greater longevity for infrastructure.

Japan’s technology also incorporates the use of retractable rubber wheels, which lift the train to its initial levitating speed of 30 mph and serves as a safety measure in the event of a power failure. Since the trains effectively “wrap” over the guideways, derailment, like what happened with China’s recent tragic bullet train collision, is not an issue. What’s more, maglev trains are not affected by adverse weather conditions including snow, ice, severe cold, rain or high winds.

Japan’s project is currently estimated to cost $114 billion with construction to start in 2014 and last until 2045.

Of course, all of these selling points come with a hefty price tag that’s hard to swallow for most countries. Japan’s project is currently estimated to cost $114 billion with construction to start in 2014 and last until 2045. Such an incredible budget and long timeline is mostly due to the decision to make the route as straight as possible, sending it under mountains and requiring massive tunnels. In fact, 60 percent of the line will exist underground at an average depth of 130 feet.

Maglev in the U.S.

While Japan has committed to maglev as the future of its rail system, similar projects throughout the United States are still struggling to get off the ground. Only one high-speed corridor exists in the United States, bridging the 456 miles between Boston and Washington, D.C.. With an average cruising speed of just 70 mph, travel time clocks in right around seven hours.

Efforts by the U.S. government to fund the development of new and faster infrastructure have either been demonized by opponents as wasteful spending or been criticized for not going far enough. In one instance the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which commits billions to high-speed rail projects throughout the nation, approved some projects that featured trains traveling at speeds below 110 mph.

The U.S. traveler will only access a new form of transportation—high-speed rail—if it saves time and is convenient.

In testimony last March before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Phyllis Wilkins, who chairs the United States Maglev Coalition, argued that only trains capable of very high speeds will sell with the public. “Unused to a truly multimodal transportation economy, the U.S. traveler will only access a new form of transportation—high-speed rail—if it saves time and is convenient,” she stated.

What’s in the works

Of the maglev projects under consideration in the United States, the most promising are lines in Pennsylvania, Atlanta, and Tennessee. None have entered the construction phase, but each is seeking additional funding while undertaking various environmental reviews and other initial efforts.

The 54-mile “Pennsylvania High-Speed Maglev Project” corridor would initially connect the Pittsburgh International Airport to the city of Greensburg, with future plans linking it to Philadelphia.  This would reduce the travel time from six hours by car to less than two hours on the maglev.

The Atlanta-Chattanooga maglev would cover over 110 miles and connect the two city centers and various other stations for a price tag somewhere between $6-$9 billion. Once completed, an estimated 11,000 people would use the route daily. Project planners are currently conducting a 12-15 month environmental study and are expected to then apply for a $2 billion federal grant to begin construction.

On the West Coast, the most discussed high-speed rail development is the electric wheel-on-rails DesertXpress, which would connect Las Vegas, NV to Victorville, CA. While in direct competition with the American Magline Group—an organization that’s proposing a Maglev train from Anaheim to Las Vegas—Xpress has recently gained the advantage after clearing a pivotal environmental review, which addresses critical issues relating to maintenance, execution and technology, thus granting go-ahead permission from the Department of Transportation.

The most discussed high-speed rail development is the electric wheel-on-rails DesertXpress.

The $6 billion, 186-mile corridor features trains reaching speeds between 130-150 mph and shaves off an estimated two hours from the current four-hour car ride. Critics, especially those who back a maglev line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, say the route doesn’t go far enough (Victorville, with a population of only 115,000 is 80 miles outside L.A.), while proponents argue for building something now and expanding later. Organizers hope to eventually tap into California’s own beleaguered interstate high-speed rail plans.

All of this inertia, however, could be derailed by a lack of federal funding. With the environmental review now complete, federal officials will weigh a staggering $4.9 billion loan request from DesertXpress as part of the Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program. In this caustic political environment, it’s hard to know if that pivotal piece of the puzzle will fall into place and usher in what representatives are calling “the country’s first true high-speed rail line.”

Whether it’s Vegas to Victorville or Osaka to Tokyo, maglev technology has the powerful opportunity to help commuters around the world save valuable time while reducing their environmental footprint.