Magnetic levitation pushing the boundaries of ultra fast travel

By | Science & Technology
Photo © AP images

Communities have been using rail to transport cargo as early as the mid fifteenth century. 300 years later, this concept was revolutionized with the advent of the steam locomotive. Like a country’s circulatory system, trains have become the lifeblood of nations, distributing people and resources, both explicitly and implicitly fuelling human expansion.

The first trains came with an air of reverence, a sense of romance, and were strongly linked with a nation’s pride. This is a notion somewhat forgotten in modern culture, though anyone travelling by tube at rush hour could be forgiven for overlooking the rich cultural and technological significance of their daily method of transport. Whilst steam trains of the past may still receive a nostalgic nod from enthusiasts, present-day rail leaves little to inspire and remains, on the majority, under appreciated. However, Japan possesses a technology that could provide a fresh injection of vitality to an ageing institution.

Of the world’s 51 busiest train stations, Japan has 47 of them. With such an extraordinary dependence of rail it is surprising to note that some of the busiest Japanese stations, when delayed, hold up commuters on average by 0.3 minutes. Delays of 5 minutes or more may result in a station-wide apology and a “delay certificate,” whilst delays over an hour can even make the news. With such a colossal demand upon rail, mechanical evolution within this sector has been catalyzed. Coupled with the high expectations of a society that has historically promoted proficiency in all its ventures, the Japanese are truly at the forefront of train engineering. Though to most, the idea of hover-transport is typically the product of ambitious, future science fiction predications, Japan’s unique societal blend of expectations and unrivalled demand has actually made hover-transport a logical progression in mass public travel.

Photo © Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Photo © Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

The Series Lo prototype magnetic levitation (maglev) train was unveiled at the end of 2012, displaying unparalleled speeds reaching 310mph. The Central Japan Railway Corporation spent five years trialling maglev technology before beginning to implement hover trains in Japan. The success of this train and its ability to achieve a velocity approaching the speed of sound is down to the removal of friction and non-reliance on traction. Compared with conventional wheeled trains, maglev offers a much smoother ride and displays a vast reduction in sound pollution, the reduction in friction also affords greater longevity of train parts. Furthermore, this techniques accelerates and decelerates far quicker than its wheeled counterparts, raising increased notions of safety, and logically alleviating safety uncertainties associated with its ultra high speeds.

Since maglev’s introduction comments have been made upon its potential to genuinely transform worldwide travel. However, with Japanese building cost estimations reaching 112 billion dollars, this utopian idea of hover travel may remain a prop of science fiction without its widespread acceptance and investment. This being said, the US may become the next country to follow suit after the Japanese government invited a team of former US politicians and industry leaders to experience maglev travel first hand. The American team forms a company called the Northeast Maglev, a company aiming to utilize maglev in a new US line between Washington DC and New York. In the event, this plan is realized it is estimated hover trains will see a two-thirds reduction in travel times between the two American cities. With the successful American adoption of maglev technology, trains worldwide could begin to see a futuristic facelift that once was the imaginings of fiction writers.

Though unimaginably expensive, investment into maglev trains is a wise move, because of its renowned speed and efficiency, yet also due to implications towards the environment. Ultra fast rail links will effectively reduce commuter reliance upon airlines to provide intra-city, state or country travel. With 2013 worldwide carbon emissions reaching a record high of 36 billion tons, a switch from emission rich travel is evidently required.

Even with maglev’s detachment from physical friction, it will alas receive it in the form uncertain investors and adversary thanks to its atypical approach. Yet positive change should be supported and trains should once again be revered; if maglev does deliver all it promises what degree of beneficial change will hover trains extend to the world?

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