Maglev: Long science fiction, maglev trains are becoming reality

SCMaglev test track in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

First conceived around 1907, Mag-lev did not become a practical reality until 1984. But, the age of the mag-lev rail is coming soon.

As a concept mag-lev is older than you may think. Like solar cells (photovoltaics), which most people are surprised to find were invented in the mid-19th Century, the basic idea of mag-lev has been around for quite awhile. The first U.S. mag-lev patent was for adding partial magnetic lift to existing trains to reduce friction and improve power use, and dates to 1907. The first German mag-lev patent dates to the early 1940’s. But despite existing for almost a century as a concept, mag-lev remained more science fiction than reality until 1984 when a short experimental track was built in the UK near Birmingham. It was the first functional mag-lev system in history. It operated until 1995 when its electronics were deemed too outdated to upgrade and it was replaced with a cable system.

Despite this first track having a short lifespan researchers worldwide are racing to perfect mag-lev train technology. Due to the lack of friction between rail and track mag-lev trains can reach speeds competitive with commercial aircraft, and could replace them with a safer cheaper alternative in the very near future. The primary weakness of current mag-lev technology is that it requires the construction of a totally new infrastructure. If mag-lev trains could run on existing tracks they would be in wide use in almost no time by railways worldwide. It is the track construction cost that inhibits the proliferation of mag-lev technology at this point. There are successful commercial mag-lev operations in China, Japan, and several European countries. Long term operating costs for mag-lev trains are generally projected to be lower than those of conventional trains and airlines. It is the high investment in initial infrastructure that makes mag-lev somewhat less than attractive to railways.

There really isn’t much doubt that mag-lev is the train technology of the future, but exactly what form it will take as it evolves remains somewhat uncertain. Mag-lev can be accomplished either with electro-magnets, or arrays of permanent magnets. They can be powered either by electromagnetic pulse impellors, or by an external propeller or jet engine. Like airplanes mag-levs must overcome air resistance, but unlike conventional trains they have no friction with the tracks. Aero-dynamic shapes can improve mag-lev speeds and performance. Although I am no engineer, I can’t help but think that the man or woman who could figure a way to build a functional mag-lev train that could use the many thousands (maybe even millions) of miles of conventional train tracks already in existence would be sitting on a goldmine. Again, I’m no engineer, but my intuition tells me that such a thing is possible.

Mag-lev trains are, as yet, a short chapter in the history of transportation, but they have a tremendous potential both for efficient transport, and being more earth friendly than their predecessors. A electro-magnetically impelled mag-lev using all hydro, wind, solar, or other green electricity would be completely pollution free to operate.