This segment is part of the IEEE Spectrum series “Fastest on Earth.”
Transrapid International’s Maglev
[train station ambience]
Susan Hassler: Back in the 1820s, a steam locomotive known as The Rocket chugged at the remarkable speed of 29 miles an hour. Today’s fastest train races above the tracks at nine times that speed. It’s the maglev, the magnetic levitation train, in Shanghai, China. Phil Ross reports.
[announcement in Chinese]
Phil Ross: We’re in a train station in downtown Shanghai, waiting for a train to the airport. And this is no poky people mover. It’s the world’s only high-speed maglev train, which reaches a top speed of 267 miles per hour. While other trains have reached higher speeds in test runs, this is the world’s fastest train in commercial operation. The German company that built it, Transrapid International, says that riding the train is like “flying on the ground.”
[announcements in Chinese and platform sounds]
Phil Ross: On the platform, we meet Benedict, a German tourist.
Benedict: I’m German, and it’s a German company who invented this thing, so I wanted to use it.… It’s an amazing technique to see how it just comes up into the air, and it hovers above the ground. This is amazing.
Phil Ross: We climb aboard for the quick 8-minute trip.
Train announcement: Dear passengers, welcome to take Shanghai Maglev Train. The destination is Pudong International Airport station.
[noises of train speeding up]
Phil Ross: In the train car, a display shows the train’s current speed. Even when we’re traveling at 267 miles per hour, the only sound is a quiet hum. That’s because we’re literally riding on a cushion of air. Marc Thompson, an expert on maglev trains, explains how they work.
Marc Thompson: There’s two basic things that need to be done for a maglev train to go as fast as it does. First, it needs to be lifted up off the track, and they do that with magnets. Have you ever seen in a dump, one of those big car-crushing electromagnets that lifts a car? It’s the same thing.
Phil Ross: The Shanghai maglev is wrapped around the track, Thompson says, and the train is lifted up toward the track by magnetic attraction. But it doesn’t touch the track, so there’s no friction to slow it down. The second part of the speed equation is what’s called a linear motor, which uses electromagnets to produce force that pushes the train along.
Marc Thompson: You can think of this as a surfer riding a wave. Well, there’s a magnetic wave that goes down the track at 250 miles per hour, and the train rides along.
Phil Ross: This short 18-mile maglev system in Shanghai was meant as a demonstration project that would show off the technology’s potential. But high-speed maglev has been slow to catch on. When the Chinese government recently decided to build 11 000 miles of high-speed rail lines, it opted for traditional wheel-on-rail trains. So for train enthusiasts, Shanghai is still tops for speed. I’m Phil Ross.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.