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The floating train has recorded a speed of 581 KM per hour - photo by JR-Maglev
The floating train has recorded a speed of 581 km per hour - photo by JR-Maglev

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 1 | Jan. 3, 2008

NBT: Floating Speed Trains

By Tae Oum
Professor and UPS Foundation Chair in Transport and Logistics, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia.

In our interconnected global world, people have now have not had a clean alternative to pollution-creating jet travel. There is a much cleaner alternative now on the horizon: floating speed trains that can travel 500 km per hour and will help spur a great shift from air to rail travel.

Rail enthusiasts take note. Japan is preparing for the build-out of the fastest train in the world -- connecting the mega-cities of Tokyo and Osaka and a dense regional population of more than 50 million people.

But speed isn’t the only factor that makes this train unique. While project planning is still at the early stages (construction wouldn’t begin until at least 2009), the tab for the project is expected to reach $100 billion, making it the most expensive project in world history.

Japanese taxpayers aren’t panicking, however. Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) believes it can finance this project entirely with private funds.

The technology is known as superconducting magnetic levitation transport, or maglev for short. Using electromagnetic force, it’s a form of transportation that suspends and guides vehicles. The 18 km-long Japanese test track in Yamanashi Prefecture has recorded a speed of 581km per hour, the current world record.

The maglev system doesn’t have wheels. When it reaches a certain speed, it floats. That’s why it can travel so fast -- it doesn’t touch the ground.

The technology has been in development since the 1970s. Back then, it was a concept. Then we started to see the building of test tracks in various places, such as Europe and Japan.

China is currently home to the 30km Shanghai Magnetic Levitation Demonstration Operation Line, connecting Shanghai to Pudong International Airport.

But in terms of long distance, for which this technology is designed, the Tokyo-Osaka train is going to the first and the fastest.

Japanese commuters should like it. With speeds topping 500km per hour, it will shorten travel time from Tokyo to Osaka to just over an hour. The current high-speed trains traveling in that corridor -- which can reach speeds of up to 300 km per hour can still only make the trip in two and a half hours.

So the key factors are falling into place for this mega-project. The money is there. The technology is there. The public support is there.

There’s also the environment element. Relative to other modes of transport, maglev technology is very green. Calculations show that the technology is 10 times cleaner than airlines in terms of CO2 emissions. This significantly impacts greenhouse gas emissions in the region, and ultimately global warming -- for the better.

You reduce the air travel, you reduce the travel by roads, you reduce congestion, and you save commuters time. In the process, you reduce emissions -- carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

The airlines are naturally concerned about the future competition. There will be a massive shift from air passengers to rail passengers.

But aircraft technology is not environmentally friendly -- even compared to other modes of transport, and especially compared to rail. Maglev, on the other hand, is greener, faster, but not surprisingly, much more expensive.

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Last reviewed 21-Dec-2007

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