American Maglev Trains Still Stuck At The Station

The seemingly magical magnetic-levitation (maglev) train, cruising at ultra-high speeds a few inches above the track rather than on it, is capable of hitting 250 to 300 mph because there’s no friction. They use electro- and permanent magnets to induce currents in the guideway, creating an air cushion that the cars ride on. The technology is expensive, and high costs have killed some maglev projects (including a Berlin to Munich line in 2008), but this train of tomorrow has long since moved past the experimental stage.

But the rail innovation that was invented by Americans, strangely, has taken off just about everywhere but in the U.S., where there’s nothing but test tracks and ambitious plans.

The Central Japan Railway, for instance, recently showed off a maglev train capable of more than 310 mph that’s designed to link Tokyo’s central Shinagawa Station with Nagoya circa 2027. A conventional bullet train now takes 90 minutes to run the route, but the maglev will do the trip in 40.

When a planned Tokyo-to-Osaka line is added to the Japanese maglev train, it could cost $100 billion, including the kind of government investment not likely to clear Congress in 2013.

Shanghai’s maglev train (to central Pudong District) has been in commercial service since 2004, and at a peak of 268 mph has long been the fastest passenger train in the world, beating the mighty TGV in France. The Chinese may soon be traveling even faster if a maglev train that travels in an airless vacuum tube is realized. It’s supposed to be capable of more than 600 mph, duplicating air travel.

The patent on the “evacuated tube transport” vacuum train, granted in 1999, belongs toDaryl Oster of ET3, who teaches mechanical engineering at Walla Walla College in Washington State. He’s an interesting guy, a former stockbroker and member of the Crystal River City Council. Oster belongs to a long tradition of Americans who pioneered maglev and saw it developed elsewhere.

Americans Robert Goddard and Emile Bachelet (who had emigrated to the U.S. from France in the 1880s) developed the concept. Goddard first described the principle in 1907, and Goddard built the first working model in 1912. To give credit where it’s due, a scientist in Nazi Germany, Hermann Kemper, advanced the concept of a “monorail with no wheels attached” in the 1930s, long before Americans James Powell and Gordon Danby got the first patent in 1968. And it was the Japanese who built the first five-mile test line in 1977.

Support needed to take off

But despite extensive government support for maglev abroad—Germany and Japan alone have invested more than $1 billion—it’s never gotten consistent funding in the U.S. After federal funding was terminated in 1975, the National Maglev Initiative was passed in 1990 as a joint Department of Energy/Department of Transportation project to study the issue. Three years later, it finished up its work and concluded:

“U.S. industry can develop an advanced U.S. maglev system.”

A U.S. maglev system “has the potential for revenues to exceed lifecycle costs in one corridor, and to cover operating costs and a substantial portion of capital costs in others. The high initial investment will require substantial public assistance.”

A U.S. maglev system “would provide an opportunity to develop new technologies and industries with possible benefits for U.S. businesses and the work force.”

It also concluded that commercial American maglev is unlikely to happen “without significant federal government investment,” and that’s not in the cards with the current anti-train atmosphere in Washington. High-speed rail, despite enthusiastic support from the Obama administration (with or without maglev—just electrifying the rails is a big hurdle), has become a political football, with some states even returning already appropriated funds for high-speed corridors. In 2003, for instance, Florida Governor Jeb Bush rejected legislature-approved funding for Florida. Governor Rick Scott turned away $2 billion in 2011 that would have helped run a line between Tampa and Orlando.

High-speed rail would appear to have the greatest chance of early success in California, where Governor Jerry Brown has been an enthusiastic proponent.

As Ecomagination has reported, we do not lack proposed maglev rail corridors. Routes have been vetted connecting the Pittsburgh International Airport to the city of Greensburg (and, eventually, Philadelphia). An Atlanta-Chattanooga route of 110 miles has also been floated, at a projected cost of $6 to $9 billion. The American Magline Group wants to connect Anaheim and Las Vegas.

Leaning toward steel-on-steel

But in a blow to maglev advocates, the Federal Railroad Administration has decided that high-speed rail is likely to be a steel-on-steel proposition for the U.S. (if it happens at all). To be sure, electric trains running conventionally on tracks can still be plenty fast—200 mph is possible—but eventually friction is going to take a toll.

Dr. Christopher Barkan, executive director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was asked by NPR about the forthcoming national high-speed rail grid. “I don’t think it’s going to be maglev,” he said last year, pointing out that even the mag-lev-loving Chinese are using fast steel wheels on rail for the bulk of their national system—because it saves money.

Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transit Association (APTA) said that to succeed, maglev would need a national constituency. “It’s hard for Congress to support something without a very broad base,” he said. “It’s not going to vote for just one maglev corridor. If there’s private funding, that can work in one specific area.”

APTA is technology neutral, so its main concern is simply to get some form of high-speed rail in place, and Guzzetti is bullish that it will happen. “In 1980, we had seven light-rail systems in the U.S., now we have 36,” he said. “There were nine commuter rail trains, now there’s 29. The market is a lot stronger for rail than it was 30 years ago, and we’re looking for it to be better still. People are supporting more transit, and we will have more passenger rail.”

Maglev still has important support internationally. According to Fast Company, new maglev trains are being studied for Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Europe and Australia. In the U.S., the biggest promise comes from an “Inductrak” electrodynamic suspension system developed by General Atomics in California that favors permanent magnets over electromagnets. The Department of Transportation has put some funding into the system, under development for more than five years.

General Atomics has a 400-foot-long test track near Torrey Pines that proves the concept, and running on it is the only functioning maglev train in the United States. But it’s currently a train to nowhere, with rides taking only 22 seconds. As Popular Mechanics points out, the potential is there—a train like American Magline’s could carry passengers from Anaheim to Las Vegas in 90 minutes, trumping the current four- to six-hour drive.

The only other major news is last year’s proposal by American Maglev to run a $344 million train from Orlando International Airport to a local SunRail stop, the Florida Mall, and the convention center.

The Florida installation would be a far cry from the heights of international maglev—trains would reach the heady speed of 50 mph (with patrons paying $13 one way). American Maglev CEO Tony Morris says he can build the system without government assistance, but he wants to use public right of ways now owned by the airport, county and Expressway Authority. “This is the ultimate e-ticket ride,” Morris told Fox’s Orlando station.

In 2011, the Japanese government offered to help fund a maglev train between Washington and New York, which seems kind of humiliating (though welcome). Of course, there’s the possibility that we’d then spend billions on Japanese-built trains for the line. That Bos-Wash Corridor train would take an hour, instead of the current four.

Old railway maps unearthed by Treehugger show that our trains today aren’t any faster than they were 80 years ago. “We’ve made zero progress in the speed of our rail travel since 1930,” the story said. “It still takes three days to get from New York to the West Coast by rail.” It’s no wonder that cross-country Amtrak service is losing money, because it’s hopelessly outmoded. Maglev trains could change that, but don’t expect them running in the land of their birth anytime soon.

txchnologistEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Txchnologist. Author credit goes to Jim Motavalli.

Txchnologist is an online magazine created in partnership with GE. We offer an optimistic, but not utopian, take on the future and humanity’s ability to tackle the great challenges of our era through industry, technology and ingenuity. We examine ideas that will shape societies, from the developing world to our frenetic and growing cities.

  • bob

    Maglev, a solution in search of a problem
    not to mention an energy hog.
    I’ve ridden them. ho hum.

  • coreybarcus

    Perhaps we should be looking at MagneMotion?

    https://plus.google.com/101768697301059339647/posts/SRVRrpXxwBF

  • JJ Kelly

    I have ridden the Shanghai maglev. Surprisingly loud continuous wail, and bumpy. Yes, bumpy. The French (Alstom company) demonstrated a steel-wheel train a few years ago that ran well over 200 mph. Cost/benefit ratio for maglev is poor relative to steel wheels.

    • CharlesWilliamMorganJr

      We rode the one in China also. Not impressive, bumpy, and not at all comfortable.

      • coreybarcus

        I haven’t had a chance to ride it myself, but there are certainly improvements that can be made to the technology, like raising the guideway gap to smooth out the ride and better insulation to dampen the sound.

  • http://twitter.com/tamikenn57 Tami Kennedy

    Congress doesn’t do anything without wide constituency backing??? Who could tell, it’s not like 90% support for universal background checks was enough…

  • CharlesWilliamMorganJr

    Spain, France, Japan and China have all successfully tested high-speed trains at over 300 MPH. The record seems to be around 375 MPH. These trains can switch over and run on any part of a national rail system, although they achieve their maximum speed on dedicated high-speed tracks. Maglev is much too expensive and inflexible.
    It must be noted that several routes in the USA ran at 110 MPH around the year 1900 and even earlier, with steam engines. We do not lack the technology to develop and run high-speed trains at 300 MPH. A 12 to 15 hour journey, including station stops, from Boston/New York to Los Angeles VIA Chicago is not at all unreasonable. The New York-Chicago segment, city center to city center, would be faster than planes, with their early reporting times. In the past, a turn-off was the great inconvenience in transferring from station to station in places like Chicago, which had five or six stations. Transcontinental trains never existed, as the railroads refused to cooperate with each other. Union stations, as in Washington, DC, were the exception rather than the rule. Places like Atlanta, Chattanooga, Birmingham, Selma-AL, Salt Lake City, Seattle, etc., all had to have two or more inconvenient stations, making transfers a great chore. The government was remiss in not forcing the railroads to work with one another, as well as not having transcontinental routes. The government is now remiss in not realizing that high-speed rail travel in the safest, most comfortable, most efficient, cheapest, least polluting form of transport known to man.

    • coreybarcus

      It is not just a matter of top speed. HSR systems have to accelerate a lot more mass, so one of the arguments in favor of a maglev system is improved efficiency. Less mass, higher accelerations (2 m/s^2), higher grades of climb (~10%), a smaller turn radius, more stops….

  • http://twitter.com/Winafish Remy Chevalier

    The use of magnets, superconducting or not, along a track is superseded by the potential of ionic fields stemming entirely from within the moving vehicle itself. Google “ion lifters”.

  • Jim Jordan

    American Maglev Trains Still Stuck at the Station
    Dear Editors

    Your article on Maglev does not take into account the evolution of Maglev technology. Just think, if we suspended our assessment of aviation with the Ford Tri Motor and ignored evolution to modern jet liners, one would assume that the airplane would be stuck at the airport forever. Similarly you have assumed in this article that Maglev will be stuck at the station and have ignored the continuing evolution of Maglev. Superconducting magnets are critical to
    Maglev transport. They are more powerful, lighter weight and more energy efficient than conventional magnets.

    American Maglev has been stuck at the station in American because the development of superconducting Maglev is heavily lobbied against. Senator
    Moynihan’s legislation to create an American Superconducting Maglev R&D
    program was strongly opposed and heavily lobbied against by the aircraft and
    rail industries. If his program had been adopted we would now have an operating 2nd generation superconducting Maglev network and our economy would be realizing the benefits of its higher energy efficiency and lower cost transportation for both passengers and freight.

    I want to start with where we agree, update your facts concerning the status of Maglev, and finally shed some insight on why AmericanMaglev is still stuck at the station. I would be please to bring you up to date at james.jordan@magneticglide.com or send your readers a link to “The Fight for Maglev” a book by Powell and Danby and available on Amazon.

    First, the 2nd generation superconducting Maglev invented by Drs. James Powell and Gordon Danby is cheaper to operate than steel-wheeled
    high speed rail transport systems as well as the 1st generation Maglev passenger systems.

    The new Powell and Danby 2nd generation superconducting repelling force system is very similar to the 1st generation system developed by Japan and is based on the inventions of Powell and Danby. Their new 2nd gen system’s operating cost is similar to Japan’s but the repelling force 1st and 2nd generation superconducting Maglev system is much cheaper to operate than the German attractive force non-superconducting, conventional electro-magnet Maglev.

    The total lack of electrical resistance of superconductive magnets uses much less electric power than the electromagnets used on the German systems operating at the German test track at Emsland and the acclaimed
    commercial system at Shanghai.

    Superconducting magnets are also much more powerful than
    electromagnets. The extra field strength of the superconducting magnets is used at Cern to accelerate particles Conventional electromagnets would not have been capable of focusing the beam that led to discovery of the Higgs Boson.

    The powerful field strength of the Powell and Danby superconducting
    Magnets permits their system to uniquely transport fully-loaded highway freight
    truck on roll-on, roll-off Maglev vehicles. This capability gives the 2nd generation system extra revenue earning power by carrying high value truck freight in the US transport market. We project that carrying one fifth of the
    interstate truck freight-transfer of more than 500 miles will earn sufficient
    revenues to pay for adding elevated guideways to the rights-of-way of the Interstate Highway System and would not burden taxpayers with the costs of construction and burden of subsidizing operating costs.

    This same Maglev guideway system can also provide 300 mph passenger, quiet, comfortable and all-weather travel service in 120 passenger Maglev vehicles. A 29,000 mile Interstate Maglev Network could provide travel service to 75 percent of the US population living within 15 miles of a Maglev station..

    The final feature of the 2nd generation system is the 4-pole superconducting magnet system, which when coupled with a 3 layer coil
    of aluminum wire, provides the repelling levitation and propelling forces for
    high speed operation. The 2nd generation 4-pole superconducting magnets are created by marrying the 2 pole magnets of the 1st generation in a single magnet configured to provide the same repelling force in the planar mode as that attained in the vertical mode of monorail guideway operation. The capability to operate in the planar mode permits the 2nd gen system to use existing RR infrastructure and to electronically switch. A capability not available to the 1st generation German and Japanese systems, they must switch off the mainline to stations by mechanical movement of very heavy guideway sections.

    The new 2nd generation superconducting Maglev transport system is still stuck at the station because rather than competing rail and maglev systems to meet the increasing requirements for a low emissions, energy efficient, low operating cost high speed guided surface transport system by government testing and certifying this superior technology, our government has elected to use the outmoded steel-wheel systems of Europe and Japan. This is a political decision and one sought by competing transport interests.

    Every one knows, and many studies have been done that tell us that the
    subsidy requirement for high speed passenger rail is too high and fares are too high to attract the ridership. In contrast, The 2nd generation superconducting
    Maglev can operate, at current electric power rates, for 5 cents per passenger
    mile, which compares very favorably with Amtrak’s Acela at $1 per passenger
    mile and the airlines at 15 cents per passenger mile. As a truck carrier the system will carry trucks at 10 cents per ton mile which is only one-third that of trucks.

    How does the 2nd generation superconducting Maglev leave the station? Simple, the U.S. government must fund a superconducting Maglev Test and Certification Facility similar to the facilities funded by Japan and Germany.

    This system could be implemented with private sector financing,
    once certified as a public carrier. Importantly, the Maglev network will save every America $1,000 dollars per year in cost of goods and travel costs.

    The investment cost in the Test and Certification program is 40 cents per year per person for only 6 years.

    The question is do we want America’s 2nd generation superconducting Maglev to be stuck at the station?

    President Obama answered this question at the beginning of his first term, he said,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkB_1QAADgE

    “And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is

    already at work building the next: a line that will connect Tokyo with

    Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour. So it’s being done; it’s
    just not being done here.”

    “There’s no reason why we
    can’t do this. This is America. There’s no reason why the future of
    travel should lie somewhere else beyond our borders. Building a new
    system of high-speed rail in America will be
    faster, cheaper and easier than building more freeways or adding to an already overburdened aviation system –- and everybody stands to benefit.”

    Barack Obama, April 16, 2009

    We agree!

    Jim Jordan http://www.magneticglide.com

    • coreybarcus

      But how much of an advantage is there for a superconducting system over something like MagneMotion’s permanent magnet suspension which can be adapted to either inner- or inter-city operation? Japan’s SCMaglev is optimized for servicing the highly traveled Osaka-Tokyo route, and the superior aerodynamic efficiency (and performance) of their system seems like an overkill for any proposed US route. Would not a lower-cost permanent magnet solution be more widely applicable in the US market?

      https://plus.google.com/101768697301059339647/posts/SRVRrpXxwBF

  • Heather L. Morigeau

    Correct me if I’m wrong here but in 2010 magnetic substances exhibited the golden mean therefor to make the ride smoother wouldn’t the engineers have to mimic this by spacing the stabilizing and propulsion magnets by using this ratio rather than the one to one ratio depicted here http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Maglev_Propulsion.svg
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v464/n7287/full/464362a.html

  • Heather L. Morigeau

    Perhaps if the magnets were positioned neg to positive 1.68 ratio in a reoccurring fibbinochi sequence only in a straight line the acceleration would also perhaps increase the speed
    This might reach a speed fast enough and stable enough that we could curve the track up and achieve space travel without the need for fossil fuel
    Midnight musing