Faster Than A Speeding Bullet Train

China is throttling up a 430-km/h magnetically levitated train to link Shanghai and its airport

Photo: Ren Long/China Features Photos

Scalping tickets toa football or basketball game? Happens all the time. Scalping tickets for a 30-kilometer train ride? Now, that's unusual.

Ah, but what a ride it was. The train is the fastest by far on the planet, and it literally flies while suspended and propelled by magnetic forces. Built in China by a trio of German companies and the Shanghai Maglev Transportation Development Co., it reaches 430 km/h (268 mi/h)—130 km/h faster than Japan's famous bullet train. And even as it goes faster than any commercial vehicle without wings, the Chinese train is smoother and quieter than Amtrak's wheel-on-rail Acela—the state of the art in the United States—which pokes along when it can at a maximum 240 km/h.

Could this be the dawning, at last, of the long-awaited age of magnetic-levitation ("maglev") trains? After many false starts and the completion of full-scale experimental maglev systems in Japan and Germany in the 1980s, maglev in China will finally start shuttling passengers in October in a reasonably large-scale, commercial system. The trains will run from downtown Shanghai's financial district to Pudong International Airport, making an 8-minute run that will shave about 40 minutes off the typical trip time in a taxi. With three five-car trains, each carrying as many as 574 passengers, and trains leaving every 10 minutes, the US $1.2 billion system could carry more than 10 million passengers a year.

The Shanghai line is the first of several maglev projects planned for later this decade [see "Selected Maglev Projects"]. They include:

  • A 37-km Munich-to-airport link in Germany.
  • A U.S. regional maglev for either Pittsburgh or Baltimore, finalists in a competition for funding by the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT's) Federal Railroad Administration (Washington, D.C.).

A 78-km Düsseldorf-to-Dortmund link in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, was cancelled only in late June because of a budget shortfall and political differences.

Another system was almost up and running, meant to carry students across the campus of Old Dominion University [see "Riding on Air in Virginia," IEEE Spectrum, October 2002, pp. 20-21]. But following its shakeout on a test guideway, the 1000-meter-long monorail, with a top speed of 64 km/h, provided a much bumpier ride on the real thing than expected. It sits unfinished, awaiting funds for further tweaking.

Passenger travel will not be the only beneficiary of maglev technology. NASA is considering it for assisting the launch of space vehicles, and the U.S. Navy wants it for catapulting its planes from the decks of aircraft carriers [see "Magnetic Takeoffs"].

Compelling advantages

No question, maglev can move people quickly. It also accelerates and decelerates quickly—up to 1.5 meters per second per second. At this rate, a maglev train can reach 300 km/h in around 5 km, compared with 30 km for a high-speed train. Thus, on routes of less than 1000 km, a maglev train could match gate-to-gate air-travel times.

Maglev is less susceptible to weather delays than flying or driving. And it is relatively quiet. Vibration levels on Amtrak's Acela train at its top 240-km/h speed are much higher than on a maglev at 400 km/h, according to a DOT study.

Maglev provides a quiet ride because it is a noncontact system. The usual noisemakers are gone. It has no wheels, rails, axles, gearing, or current collector riding on a high-voltage rail. They're replaced by electromagnetics in each vehicle and in the guideway [see "Moving on Air in China"]. One set of electromagnets elevates the vehicle above the guideway and then propels it along. A second set keeps the vehicle centered laterally over the guideway. Such a frictionless system also consumes less energy per passenger than high-speed trains and no more than one-fifth the energy of airplanes and one-third that of automobiles. The ride is smooth, and passengers can move about freely, although air friction, and its concomitant noise, becomes a factor at higher speeds.

Like high-speed rail, maglev has dedicated rights of way with no grade crossings. This should allow it to match the enviable safety records of the Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains (in operation since 1964) and the French Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV, since 1981), which have never had a passenger fatality.

Even at an estimated $20 million per kilometer and up for a dual line, which can move as many people as a six- to 10-lane highway, maglev's life-cycle costs in urban areas can be competitive with those of highways. Where everyone agrees that maglev excels is in operations and maintenance: one California project calculated it would cost 33-50 percent less to operate than high-speed rail. Studies have shown maglev construction costs to range from slightly to much higher than those for high-speed rail, and it can move up a 10-degree incline, compared with high-speed rail's 3 degrees, a factor in cost comparisons.

The system in China

Shanghai's system is being built jointly by Shanghai Maglev and three German companies in the Transrapid International consortium. The technology was developed by Siemens AG (Munich), the electrical equipment giant, and ThyssenKrupp AG (Düsseldorf), which applies its locomotive experience to the vehicles and guideways. In 1998, the two companies formed Transrapid International GmbH (Berlin) to develop maglev transportation. A demonstration system, on which China's maglev is based, has operated in Emsland, Germany, since 1984.

Siemens Transportation Systems Group (Munich) built the propulsion, control, and safety systems, and ThyssenKrupp Transrapid GmbH (Kassel and Munich) built the vehicles and motors. Shanghai Maglev, itself a joint venture of Chinese government-funded enterprises, fabricated more than 2700 25-meter-long concrete-and-steel sections for the elevated guideways at its Shanghai factory. The guideways were completed last summer, with a pair of stations at the ends of the line, a repair center, and transformer substations ready earlier.

On New Year's Eve 2002, Zhu Rongji, then premier of China, and chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany were aboard for the first demonstration ride that reached 430 km/h. For Zhu, the ride must have been of particular interest: he is an electrical engineering graduate of Tsinghua University in Beijing. Some years earlier, he rode the demo maglev in Germany. He liked it, which could have played a role in the choice of a maglev for Shanghai.

"So far, the system is running with no technical problems," Hartmut Heine, ThyssenKrupp's representative in Beijing, told IEEE Spectrum in late May. Its practice runs on weekends were so popular that people were even buying the $6 and $9 tickets on the black market. In the first 10 weeks of test runs this year, 83 000 people rode the maglev. By the May Day holiday, though, the rides were halted because of the SARS epidemic.

The Chinese are indeed serious about high-speed ground transportation, and maglev is a contender. Heine expects a decision "in the near future" on whether the Shanghai line will be extended to the nearby cities of Hangzhou and Wuxi. At 30 km, the Shanghai line is relatively short, on flat terrain; it has yet to prove economically viable for long distances.

One of two systems

Transrapid's maglev system for Shanghai (and elsewhere) relies on magnetic attraction in what's called an electromagnetic suspension (EMS) system. It's one of two basic approaches to magnetic levitation. With EMS, linear synchronous motors had to be developed that are built partially in the vehicle and partially in the guideway. And electronic control systems were needed to hold the vehicle suspended at a constant height above the guideway as it zooms along.

U.S. physicist Robert Goddard and French émigré inventor Emile Bachelet conceptualized frictionless trains using magnetic fields about 100 years ago. Maglevs have been on the drawing boards since Hermann Kemper received a maglev patent in Germany in 1934. In 1994 a decision was made to build a Berlin-to-Hamburg line, but the project and others later were put on hold at different times by one political party or another. Another confrontation, instigated by the Green Party, halted the Düsseldorf system. However, the Christian Democrats in the Frankfurt area now seem interested in considering a maglev.

The turning point could be now. Shanghai's system is soon to go into operation, and in fiscal year 2003, the German government budgeted ¤550 million (US $638 million) out of ¤1.6 billion for the Munich system to link to the nearby international airport, the country's second busiest. Traveling at a top speed of 400 km/h, the system will turn a 45-minute rail trip into a 10-minute hop. The project is in the "public legal planning process," as it's called, leading to environmental impact statements and final design. Construction is to begin around 2005-2006. When given the go-ahead, Transrapid International will build the vehicles and electronics, while local industry will build the guideway and other structures.

Magnetic expectations

The other basic system—electrodynamic suspension (EDS)—depends on repulsive magnetic forces and is being pursued by the Japanese, as well as by Maglev 2000 Corp. of Florida, in Titusville. Such a system has a larger air gap between the vehicle and guideway, a plus in earthquake-prone Japan. The larger gap also means that components can be built with wider tolerances. But stronger magnets are needed to maintain the gap, which is being achieved with superconducting electromagnets. (Guideway components in the Shanghai system are machined to higher tolerances—hundredths of millimeters—to keep the cars from hitting the guideways.)

Relying on liquefied helium and nitrogen, EDS consumes less energy than the German EMS, and lets a train reach higher speeds. However, the system is further from commercialization, although the Japanese built a test track in 1975. Presently, they have an 18-km-long track near Yamanashi, on which passengers have been enjoying demonstration rides since 1997. Trains there have set a speed record of 552 km/h.

In the United States, surface transportation efforts, including maglev, are receiving funds from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) under the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). In May 1999, the agency funded seven studies in different parts of the country involving market analysis and construction planning for maglev systems. Two years later, the two most promising projects—in Pittsburgh and Baltimore—received follow-on awards to consider environmental factors, total costs, and revenue projections over 40 years. The two projects are now vying for an all-or-nothing award expected this year of up to $950 million, about one-third of estimated costs.

Pennsylvania plans a 76-km link joining Pittsburgh to its international airport and two other cities. Maryland wants a 60-km-long line from Baltimore to Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Linthicum, Md., and on to Union Station in the nation's capital, where it will join Amtrak, regional rail lines, and the subway. Travel time over the entire route could be a short 18 minutes.

California, which failed to win a federal award, has been pursuing maglev projects on its own. For example, in May 2002, the Southern California Association of Governments (Los Angeles), an authority of 165 cities and six counties, awarded a $16 million contract to a team from Lockheed Martin Corp. (Bethesda, Md.) to assess four possible maglev corridors. Among these is a seven-station 171-km line between Los Angeles International Airport and Palmdale Regional Airport.

In October 2002, the San Bernardino (Calif.) Associated Governments, another regional planning group, approved funds for feasibility and preconstruction studies for a 433-km Anaheim-to-Las Vegas maglev line with several stations along the way. Project supporters hope to begin construction in mid-2007.

A compelling rationale for such projects is found in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Aviation Capacity Enhancement Plan. An analysis of Los Angeles International's (LAX's) air traffic in 2000 found that only 2 percent of the passengers on short flights within California were responsible for 47 percent of LAX flight delays. And delays at LAX ripple out to keep aircraft from taking off at airports around the country. Getting to the airport by high-speed rail or maglev could save LAX about $515 000 per day in delay costs, notes the study.

Maglev projects slow to energize

Although maglev was popularized in the press decades ago, a host of technical problems first had to be solved. Only when full-scale prototypes were built and tested with Japanese and European government support did the technology mature and appear practical.

The Europeans and Japanese saw the value of high-speed ground transportation first. They built extensive, wheel-on-rail systems with speeds of up to 300 km/h. These include not only Japan's Shinkansen bullet train and the French TGV but the German InterCity Express (ICE) lines and the Eurostar trains of the English Channel tunnel. All these speedy trains depend on new signaling systems and dedicated rights of way. Their tracks are off limits to heavy freight trains with their wear and tear, although the fast trains can use ordinary rail lines at lower speeds.

Europe is also developing the Trans European Network, a transportation, telecommunications, and energy infrastructure. It includes 865 km of new—and 2000 km of upgraded—high-speed rail lines. The Europeans are particularly keen on intermodal transportation—that is, points where rail, plane, and highway systems come together and passengers may switch from one to the other. With Europe's high-speed rail infrastructure, adding a widespread maglev network offers little advantage. Rather, the greatest interest for maglev lies in regional and intermodal applications, such as airport-to-railroad or -city connections.

In the United States, high-speed ground transportation has made little headway. Amtrak, the national railway authority, has had financial and technical problems and has cut passenger connections to some cities. The condition of the rails lets the high-speed Acela train reach its top 240-km/h speed for only an 18-minute stretch; on most of the track between Washington, D.C., and Boston it travels at 216 km/h. Unusual for the United States, the line has an intermodal connection, at Newark International Airport in New Jersey.

Maglev in the United States has had a shaky existence. Federal funds for research were doled out to universities and aerospace companies in the early 1980s, and a "national initiative" to evaluate maglev for intercity travel lasted from 1990 to 1993. But funding was never constant, and public policy deemphasized high-speed ground transportation in favor of subsidized air and highway travel.

About the Author

PHILIP HOLMER is an engineer and project manager for civil aviation communications and satellite navigation systems at Titan Corp., in Pomona, N.J. He is also the vice chair of transportation on the IEEE-USA Committee on Transportation & Aerospace Technologies, and has become intrigued by the possibilities of maglev technology.

To Probe Further

Transrapid International offers photos, descriptions, and even videos of its systems on the Web at http://www.transrapid.de.

For three U.S. regional programs, see http://www.calmaglev.org(California), http://www.maglevpa.com(Pennsylvania), and http://www.bwmaglev.com(Baltimore-Washington, D.C.).

Japan's efforts can be found at the Japanese Railway Technical Research Institute, at http://www.rtri.or.jp.

Technical reports on noise, vibration, and electromagnetic fields are at the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT's) Volpe Center, http://www.volpe.dot.gov/enviro/pubs.html. The Federal Railroad Administration of the DOT presents its views on maglev at http://www.fra.dot.gov/rdv/maglev/index.htm.

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