The history of trains is beloved of every young trainspotter and uber-geek, and it does make fantastic reading.
From the revolutionary Rocket through to the high speed journeys of the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman, Japan’s sleek electric Bullet and France’s pride and joy, the TVRs, and on to the mindblowingly-fast Maglev, it is true to say that train travel has come along way, baby.
Of them all, the world’s fastest train, the Maglev, is perhaps the longest- and most eagerly- awaited. Because despite it being a frankly futuristic concept of a train running on magnetic tracks, there has been an astonishing seven decades between the first (German) patent in 1934 and the first commercial service launched in Shanghai, China, in 2004. Other commercially operated lines now exist in Japan, most famously the Linimo, a magnetic levitation train line in Aichi, near the city of Nagoya.
Unbelievably quiet apart from the ‘whoosh’ of air as it passes, the sleek Maglev train ‘flies’ – yes, it really is officially described as flying – at an incredible 300 kilometres per hour in two minutes flat, tops 400 kph in three minutes, and has been known to go over 500kph during test runs. That’s just over two hours from Paris to Rome, making it only 10 minutes slower than taking the plane!
Ahhh, the plane, yes, that’s what it reminds you of, because despite having no wings (or engine or wheels either, but more of that later), the Maglev is much more like a plane than it is a train, and so is as revolutionary as the Stephenson’s Rocket was back in 1829. Transrapid, the German firm that developed the system, describes the Maglev as “the first fundamental innovation in the field of railway technology since the invention of the railway.”
So how does it do it? Maglev is short for magnetic levitation, and magnets are the magic ingredients. In practice this means that the trains float a centimetre above the guideway that replace the old train tracks using the basic principles of magnets. Known as electromagnetic suspension (EMS), it’s just like the science you did at school or when you played around with those ladybird or frog magnets when you were a kid – basically the opposite poles attract and the like poles repel each other. Electromagnets are similar to other magnets in that they attract metal objects, but the magnetic pull is temporary, and the magnetic field that this creates is how the Maglev train rail system works. Even its components are simple, comprising of:
• A large electrical power source (no conventional engine)
• Metal coils lining the guideway (no overhead cables)
• Large guidance magnets attached to the underside of the train (no wheels)
No conventional engine, huh? So how does it move? Back to your frog magnetic ‘running’ (ie being pushed) away from it’s twin across your school desk. Basically the train runs the same way – the magnetic field created by the electrified coils in the guideway walls and the track combine to propel the train as it floats on a cushion of air. And that completely eliminates friction, which when combined with the trains’ aerodynamic design allows these trains to reach unprecedented ground transportation speeds.
The best-known high-speed maglev currently operating commercially is the IOS (initial operating segment) demonstration line of the German-built Transrapid train in Shanghai, China, that transports people 30 km (18.6 miles) to the airport in just 7 minutes 20 seconds, achieving a top velocity of 431 km/h (268 mph), averaging 250 km/h (150 mph).
However, all of the operational implementations of maglev technology have had little, or no, overlap with wheeled train technology and so are not compatible with conventional rail tracks. Consequently, Maglevs must be designed as new and complete transportation systems, which have proved one of the main stumbling blocks to their development to date.
So why with all this exciting futuristic train travel in other parts of the world, why hasn’t a new age of the train dawned right here in Britain? Let’s not go in to another “Britain is rubbish” fest here, because it simply isn’t true, despite the inescapable dire state of our nation’s railway. It’s simply that we pushed out the frontiers of the train so fast and so early that is an engineering, logistical and financial nightmare to add electric cabling, such as is needed for the TVRs, to most of our existing railways because of the tunnels and bridges and other factors.
Just think of Victorian technological breakthroughs, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s extension to the Great Western Railway along the south Devon coast to Plymouth, which still uses a system of five tunnels through cliffs and a four-mile sea wall, and you’ll understand the engineering problems inherent in converting our train system. Basically the whole thing needs scrapping and rebuilding, instead of patching and adapting, and the cost of that would be prohibitive. So probably not something that is likely to happen in our lifetime.
However, in the here and now, countries like China, the United States or Australia, where there is a vast expanse of open country largely unconnected by train, could easily opt for a Maglev system. And let’s not forget that the Maglev is pollution-free, so if the megapowers take advantage of its technology, at least it will benefit the rest of us at the same time, even if we can’t just step on and enjoy the flight.
© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.