Go! Go! Maglev Train!

Since its first major introduction to the world in 2004, the maglev train exists as an unchallenged technological wonder. Its ability to allow people to travel great distances in a short time at an affordable cost while having a relatively low environmental impact, has gained much praise from various communities around the globe. At one time the maglev train captivated applause from people all around the world. They saw it as a viable answer to problems regarding transportation, infrastructure, and environmental impact. However, over 20 years later despite all its progress, only three countries (China, Japan, S. Korea) have implemented it on a large scale. This leaves the question of “why”? With all its advances and the future looking bright, the maglev train has struggled to catch on in other countries. More specifically the United States.

In this article, we will explore what a maglev train is, and how it works. What it takes to run it. And what has been the deciding factor(s) on whether or not a country will adopt it for use?

Quick History of the Maglev

Maglev, short for magnetic levitation, is a high-speed transportation system that uses magnets to levitate and propel vehicles. The first patent for a maglev system dates back to 1905 by the American inventor Alfred Zehden. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the technology began to gain traction when engineers at various universities and research institutions began exploring the use of magnets to levitate and propel trains.

In 1984, the world’s first commercial maglev system began operating in Birmingham, England. The system, known as the “Maglev 2000,” used electromagnetic suspension and propelled trains at speeds of up to 42 mph. Unfortunately, technical difficulties and high costs plagued the project and it eventually became abandoned. One New York Times, article states, “The Maglev 2000 was the victim of high costs, political indecision, and technical problems.”

1985 video of an early maglev train in Berlin

Despite the setbacks, maglev technology continued to develop throughout the decades. In the 1990s, several countries began investing heavily in maglev research and development. Japan became a leader in Maglev technology. The country’s high-speed Maglev train set a new world speed record of 361 mph in 2005. One Forbes article wrote, “Japan has been at the forefront of maglev development for decades, and its high-speed maglev trains are the fastest commercial trains in the world.”

How Does it Function?

Maglev, or magnetic levitation, is a high-speed transportation technology that uses powerful magnets to suspend and propel vehicles along a guideway. According to a report by the Federal Railroad Administration, “Maglev trains operate on the principle of magnetic repulsion between the vehicle and the guideway, which eliminates the need for wheels and steel-on-steel contact.”

The maglev train consists of two major components: the vehicle and the guideway. The vehicle carries passengers or cargo. Powerful electromagnets are located under the vehicle. Electromagnets also line the guideway and create a magnetic field. This interaction between the two electromagnets creates a levitation effect and propels the vehicle forward.

Photo provided by: SciTechDaily

Sophisticated computer systems on the vehicle ensure the train stays on course and maintains a safe distance from other vehicles. The computer system monitors the position and speed of the train and adjusts the magnetic fields as necessary. This keeps the train moving smoothly and safely.

The Advantages of Maglev Trains

The most obvious advantage of a maglev train system is the ability to travel great distances in a short amount of time. At 375 mph(603.5km/h) a maglev train can get passengers from New York to Los Angeles in about 7 hours. Of course, when bringing up massive objects going at high speeds, public safety remains a primary concern. Since magnetic fields propel maglev trains, all trains remain spaced equally apart, making a crash unlikely. Furthermore, it’s the same magnetization that keeps trains from derailing off the tracks. The absence of rails also means the absence of friction allowing the trains to move more efficiently as opposed to traditional trains that rolled on tracks. Another advantage that comes from magnetism is that less friction means fewer moving parts. This roughly translates to a lesser need for frequent maintenance as there is a reduction in wear and tear.

Challenges Maglev Trains Face

The advantages of the maglev train seemingly make it an amazing option for traveling. Yet, decades after its introduction, only three countries have successfully implemented its use on a large scale. Maglev trains have seen small-scale use in Europe and practically none in the United States. This of course raises the question of “Why?”.

Cost remains a primary obstacle in the adoption of maglev trains. One report by the National Maglev Initiative states, “Maglev systems are currently more expensive to build than traditional rail systems, due to the high cost of the guideway and the specialized equipment required.” This makes investing in maglev infrastructure difficult to justify. Especially in regions with traditional rail systems already established.

Another challenge is the lack of infrastructure. Maglev systems require dedicated guideways that are separate from existing transportation infrastructure. Building new guideways to accommodate maglev trains would be necessary. This of course is both a time-consuming and expensive process. In addition, maglev systems may face resistance from communities and property owners who do not want the guideways built in their area.

MagLev trains also face the challenge of having a lot of competition. Not only would it be competing with the automotive industry, but also with commercial travel. Despite these challenges, there is optimism that magLev trains may have a place as a daily commuter transport. Adopting the magLev train system on a smaller scale might make it more feasible in the US.

The Fate of Maglev

From its first conception in the early 1900s to its wide-scale use today, maglev trains exist as a technological wonder that simultaneously astounds the world while also being an afterthought. As the world grapples with the issues of climate change, resource scarcity, and economic disparity maglev trains continue their struggle in finding their place in the world. The maglev train has a lot to offer us, but the challenges surrounding it require addressing before it can become a viable solution.

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