Maglev trains: traveling as fast as the speed of sound

With the rise of mega-cities many companies are currently fighting for the next big technological leap with public train transportation. In the future we need fast, durable and efficient transportation from city A to city B. One of the promising solutions is the Maglev train, which was initially proposed in 2012 by E. Musk, CEO at Tesla Motors.  A hyper-tube pod, that can travel as fast as the speed of sound: 1000 km per hour. They are selectively being operated in China, Germany and Japan, but why aren’t Maglev’s widely available today?  We answer this and give you an update about the development of tomorrow’s train transportation.   

A conventional intercity train runs 130km per hour using 6 barrels of oil per 16.000 passengers, where as a Maglev only use 0.46 barrels for the same amount and runs 485km per hour according to the US Center of Transport Analysis at Oakridge (USA). A. Klebanow, senior partner of Global Market Advisers in Los Angeles (USA), says that the USA finds it more economical to import this technology instead of developing it self. He doesn’t known if the market would be suited for Maglev”s. If you look at the current market there are Maglev trains being operated with paying customers in Germany, China, Japan and run on 300 miles per hour. Civil Engineer at the Duke University H. Petroski says, ”There’s a reason technological leaps in transportation are rare. They usually don’t work quite as well as hoped. The Physics make sense.” The technology clearly works, but why haven’t we seen a Maglev going by?

According to D. Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (USA), ”The question is, can it compete — from a capital standpoint and and operating standpoint.” In order to operate this futuristic transportation it has to attract enough customers, fix the myriad safety issues and paperwork and last but not least lower the costs per mile for the tracks. For example China payed $12,4 million per mile, California’s rail-system costs $35 million per mile and Hyperloop One will costs around $10 million per mile. ”We could absolutely build the hyperloop today and deploy it. It would just be very expensive” said, B. BamBrogan from Hyperloop One company. He works with other industrial players, such as Aecom, Arup, Amberg Group and Systra to make hyperloop trains a reality. Building tubes criss-crossing the world isn’t the challenge, given all the oil pipelines and subways. Neither is developing aero- and thermodynamics in the tube or maintaining a rear vacuum within the tube according B. Bambrogan’s partner Lloyd. 

renee van wesep 06

Since 2004 Maglev trains are run in Shanghai (China)

Maglev trains can reach speeds of more than 500km per hour through the aerodynamic design which eliminated friction. The electromagnets that are being used, causing a temporary pull resulting that the train floats on a cushion of air. Behind this is the basic electromagnetic propulsion in which magnets of opposite poles attract and vice versa. You have three components in this system: electric power source, metal coils and on the undercarriage guidance magnets. Maglev trains don’t have an engine. They use the magnetic field created by the electrified coils in the track and guide-way walls. Conventional trains use often fossil fuels and a front engine to pull train cars along the tracks. Metal coils lining a guide-way. Along the tracks you have magnetized coils strips aka the guide-track. The Maglev levitates 1 to 10cm above this track, because of the repel effect with the train undercarriage magnets. The supplied electric current to the wall coils creates a system of push and pull along the guide-ways. It creates the magnetic field in front and back of the train. 

The German Maglev system and the Japanese system are based on similar concepts, but they have distinct differences. Germany’s Transrapid International developed the Transrapid system also known as an electromagnetic suspension (EMS) system and travels up to 300 miles per hour with people on board. In which the train wraps around a steel guide-way. The electromagnets of the train undercarriage are directed up towards the guide-way causing the train to float even if it’s not moving and let it levitate 1cm above the ground. Other magnets in the trains body are adding to the stability during the ride. Japan created the electrodynamic suspension system (EDS) which is based on repelling force of magnets. Which causing their Maglev’s to levitate 10cm above the ground. In order to lift off EDS system must roll on rubber tires until it reaches a speed of 100km per hour.

They use super-coded, superconducting electromagnets, which conducts electricity even after the power is shut down. The cryogenic system cools these coils down, however this system is expensive. They bypasses seems solved in a new variant of EDS system called the Inductrack which uses permanent room temperature magnets to produce this magnetic field. When the train begins to float the Inductrack uses a power source to accelerate the train. It’s build of an array of electrically shorted circuits containing insulated wire. Safety and costs concerns lead to the invention of the Inductrack invention: you have two variants Inductrack 1 for high speeds and Inductrack 2 for slow speeds. Scientists thought that permanent magnets didn’t cause enough levitating force. However by arranging the magnets in a Halbach array the Inductrack proves to be possible. Dr. R.F. Post at the Livermore National Laboratory in California (USA) came up with this concept and NASA awarded him and his team to explore this to launch satellites into orbit.


R.C. Pulliam’s Tubular Rails concept

Since 2014 Japan started their construction of a record-breaking high speed Maglev, which levitated at 10cm compared to the Shanghai counterpart of 1cm, making it saver for natural disasters such as earthquakes. Tokyo and Nagoya City will be connected, a distance of 286km, with a journey time of 40minutes. And they plan an extension of another 139km with a traveling time of 67minutes rather than 145minutes between Tokyo and Osaka. Maximum speeds are 500km per hour. Japanese Maglev trains are a strong selling point, because of the intrinsic safety, says T. Ishino, the trunk railway division chief at the railway bureau of Japan’s ministry of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism. However, M. Hashiyama disagrees with this statement:”There is no country interested in Maglev technology today.” In 2011 two Chinese fast running trains collided near the city of Wenzhou in Shanghai resulting that a dozen people were killed.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) is a lesser known rival of Hyperloop One and both test their feasibility in Abu Dhabi as on European grounds. HTT’s CEO D. Ahlborn signed an ”exploratory agreement” with the city Brno (Czech) to examine their hyperloop train line to Bratislava (Slovakia). They work with the government, Aecom, Atkins and Carbures, licensed the passive magnetic levitation technology from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and partnered with Leybold, which worked on the large hadron collider at CERN. According to Ahlborn his engineers make process: ”We have solved all technical issues.” This is all on paper and by the end of 2017 he hopes to have a prototype system under construction. Besides the technological hurdle you have to create new regulations and making the hyperloop trains useful, reliable and cost-efficient. 

Co-founder and chairmen at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) in Los Angeles (USA) B. Gresla attempts to build such a railway-system and succeeded to build a test at the 3000 square facility in Toulouse (France). Also known as Aerospace valley. Currently, they develop a hyperloop train of 700 miles per hour, which uses the ”passive magnetic levitation” technology. Each trains carries a passive magnet and runs on an aluminium track containing loops of wire. Creators claim this development is more safer and efficient than the levitation system of Japanese Maglev trains. Also, The Korea Railroad Research Institute (KRRI) partnered with Hanyang University and other research groups in order to develop the hyperloop system. 

China Straddling Bus

Transit Elevated Bus presented in 2016 (China)

At this moment Maglev’s are the front-runner when you talk about the future technological development on trains. But we discuss the following proposes on this subject that researches have done. National Geographic launched a documentary called ”Next Future Train” and featured a promising alternative project of R.C. Pulliam’s Tubular Rails. Instead of tracks these trains are running on elevated pillars with O-rings and when they turn the pillar turns. Although the basic designs are flawed Pulliam is solving one of the biggest construction costs: the tracks. The hoops are able to be stacked on top of each other. As of now the project is put on halt, because there is a lack of financial backing by investors. 

In the same documentary S. Weinbaum, professor Emeritus of Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering at The City College of New York, proposed a railway from feathers, this friction was inspired by the movement of skiers through the snow. The last proposal for future train transport was made by Chinese companies Huaying Kailai and Batie Technologies in 2016 called the Transit Elevated Bus, also in known in the media as ”China’s straddling bus”. Their plans fell through as soon as the prototype was announced. Although there was allot of opposition on the basic designs, such as safety concerns and inefficiency in traffic, a prototype was presented in (2016) Qinhuangdao city. It seems the whole company was desolved after this presentation, because of an alleged Ponzi scheme to pledge funds from investors.

In conclusion, it seems safe to say we still need our old conventional trains until scientist figure out a way to lower the building costs per mile and can guarantee better passenger safety, because accidents have occurred in Germany as in China. Fortunately, every year major technological breakthroughs are being made and hyper-loop testing is in full fletched mode, from Asia to Europe and USA, to transport the increasing demand for fast, reliable and cheap transportation for growing mega-cities.  For now we the train transport fuel costs can be lowered by using wind power [Click here to read more about wind power]


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