A Japanese maglev train set a world speed record last week, reaching a top speed of 374 MPH. The experimental magnetic levitation train set a world record when it reached a top speed of 361 miles per hour back in 2003, and it broke that record at 366 mph two weeks ago.
But then last week, it broke the record again, travelling at an astonishing 374 mph. At that rate, it could make the trip from Tokyo to Nagoya, which normally takes 5 hours by car, in a mere 40 minutes. But don’t buy your tickets yet. The first maglev trains are not expected to enter regular service until 2027.
A maglev train rides along a specially constructed rail line. An electric field allows it to ride about 4 inches off the ground. Since there are no wheels touching the tracks, friction is greatly reduced, which allows the maglev train to go faster than any conventional train. While it might seem that most of the power the train uses would be needed to keep it hovering just off the ground, in fact the majority of power is used to overcome aerodynamic drag.
That drag could be substantially reduced it the maglev train ran inside a vacuum tube, which is precisely the idea behind Elon Musk’s visionary Hyperloop concept. While that system would not operate in a complete vacuum, it would still remove most of the air from inside the tube, allowing maglev trains inside to hit speeds of 800 mph or more. That’s fast enough to make the trip from New York to Los Angeles in just over 4 hours. It would also put some airlines out of business. A Chinese company thinks it can make a train that can travel 1800 mph using vacuum tube technology, but don’t hold your breath for that one.
The fastest maglev train currently in commercial service connects Shanghai to the local airport. It makes the 18 mile trip in 8 minutes at speeds up to 250 mph. Other low speed maglev trains are in use or proposed in many parts of Asia, where moving large numbers of people quickly is a priority. One such train built in Japan for the 2005 World Expo carried over 10,000,000 passengers in just 3 months time.
In America, the Amtrak Acela is capable of traveling 150 mph but the poorly maintained tracks in the Northeast Corridor limit it to as little as 50 mph along some sections. Texas is interested in constructing a new rail line for a high speed “Bullet Train” to connect Houston and Dallas.
High speed trains are an appealing alternative to air travel. China is thinking about building a rail link from Beijing to San Francisco that would transport passengers in comfort from one city to the other in 2 days time. And they probably won’t charge extra for your luggage, either!
One consideration, of course, is how much energy will these trains of the future consume and where will it come from? If the electricity is supplied by dirty, coal fired facilities, the advantage of speed may be offset by negative environmental considerations. But what if the got their electricity from solar power? Another key question is, how much will they cost to build? And can fares be kept low enough to attract people who normally fly to consider going by train instead? These are questions that have no answers at present.