While the world looks at Hyperloop projects with caution, it is useful to look at another railway technology: magnetic levitation, which Europe seems to have definitively cancelled …
The magnetic levitation train can be defined as a high-speed train, but not only. In 1984, in Birmingham, a train operated on an elevated 600m section of monorail track between Birmingham Airport and Birmingham International railway station, running at speeds up to 42 km/h. The system was closed in 1995 due to reliability problems.
However in the vast majority of cases, the magnetic levitation train is studied as high-speed rail system, which seems to be his reason for being. That is why this technology was still proposed when Britain launched the preliminary consultations to find what kind of train would connect London to the north of the country. The Maglev was quickly dismissed due to great uncertainties to its technical and financial mastery, in favor of a classic high-speed line, the HS2. After the failure and the stopping of the tests in Germany, there is no more project of this type in Europe. Maglev, a magnetic levitation train, is now active in six locations in Asia, the only continent that still believes it.
The first Asian Maglev was commissioned in South Korea in 1993 at the Daejeon World Expo site. China followed in 2004 with a Maglev link between Shanghai and the new Pudong airport, then Japan launched operation with the Linimo train in Nagoya in 2005. South Korea extended the Daejeon line to Incheon airport in 2016, while the Chinese company Changsha used a magnetic lift train between an airport and a railway station the same year. In Shanghai, only the Maglev train to Pudong airport runs at more than 400 km / h at high speed. The other five Maglevs only drive about 110 km / h.
The Maglev technology
Maglev is a method of transportation that uses magnetic levitation tocarry vehicles with magnets rather thanwith wheels, axles and bearings. With maglev,a vehicle is levitated a short distance awayfrom a guide way using magnets to create bothlift and propulsion. Maglev trains move more smoothly and somewhat more quietly than wheeled masstransit systems.
The term maglev refers not only to the vehicles, but to the railway system as well, specifically designed for magnetic levitation and propulsion. In fact, the term Maglev refers to one of the two kind of magnetic levitation. The are indeed two notable types of levitation technology:
- Electromagnetic suspension (EMS), electronically controlled electromagnets in the train attract it to a magnetically conductive (usually steel) track. The best example is the German Transrapid as a monorail.
- Electrodynamic suspension (EDS) uses superconducting electromagnets or strong permanent magnets that create a magnetic field, which induces currents in nearby metallic conductors when there is relative movement, which pushes and pulls the train towards the designed levitation position on the guide way. The most successful project is the Japanese Maglev. Trains using the EDS system are not monorails.
According to its promoters, the benefits of maglev are hard to contest. By replacing wheels and supporting machinery with electromagnets or super-conducting magnets, levitating trains are able to reach incredible speeds. Maglev trains eliminate indeed a key source of friction—that of train wheels on the rails—although they must still overcome air resistance. This lack of friction means that they can reach higher speeds than conventional trains. At present maglev technology has produced trains that can travel in excess of 500 km (310 miles) per hour. Because of this technology repels the train above its track, derailments are unlikely.
Maglev trains can accept slopes up to 10%, compared to a maximum of 3 to 4% for a conventional high speed line. This could mean fewer bridges and tunnels in hilly areas. But the Japanese project still shows 86% of the line would be in tunnel.
Among others benefits often cited, track maintenance costs tend to be lower than for normal trains as there isn’t any wear or tear.
« Some people say that once you’ve put a guideway in place for a magnetic levitation machine, you never have to replace or even maintain it » says Laurence Blow, founder of the MaglevTransport consulting group. A Transrapid document shows that there is anyway maintenance to perform, but at a cost of 66% lower than a conventional high-speed line. An unverifiable figure due to the absence of a real project operated over several years.
As is often the case with disruptive technologies, groups are formed between pros and cons. With the absence of important systems in operation, there is a lack of perspective to appreciate the real advantages and disadvantages compared to conventional railways, particularly in economic terms. This does not prevent to have a critical view.
Maglev technology has nothing in common with a conventional railway: there are no longer the two rails that we have known for 200 years. The track itself forms a closed entitie: it’s a system that can not be connected to an existing railway network and that consumes a lot of concrete and rare metals (for electromagnets). This poses significant problems of integration in large cities, as Maglev should be built close to existing tracks, or squarely on a dedicated site, which is very difficult in highly urbanized areas.
Globally, the Maglev is still too many enemies, too few friends. Alongside the financial challenges is a lack of market opportunities to build a mainline maglev. Despite maglev systems have demonstrated drastically reduced operating costs and carbon emissions, incompatibilities with existing rail infrastructure and $50-200 million per mile construction costs have become insurmountable impediments to mainstream adoption. The failed proposal for a 1,300km Beijing to Shanghai maglev line in 2005 highlights this problem.
Maglev trains do require more energy to run than conventional trains. In the overall balance, the power needed for levitation is typically not a large percentage of the overall energy consumption, as most of the power is used toovercome air resistance, as with anyother high-speed form of transport. However, at low speeds, the percentage of power used for levitation can be significantconsuming up to 15% more power than asubway or light rail service. Also for veryshort distances the energy used for acceleration might be considerable. Also some energy is used for air conditioning, heating, lighting and other miscellaneous systems, as any modern train in the world. Maglev EDS technology requires the maintenance of superconducting coils at temperatures of -269 ° C, which has an impact on energy consumption.
Speed is very important concerning energy consumption. A study of 2018 shows an energy consumption of 99 Wh/places/km for the Chuo Shinkansen at a cruising speed of 500km/h in the tunnel, on the line Tokyo-Osaka. The sole increase of driving resistance passing 450 km/h to 500 km/h on an open-air route, drives to an increase of energy consumption by 15 to 20 %. That’s important criteria when a governement must to choose a technology for high speed train.
However, if we compare with a speed of 330km / h, the study shows lower figures compared to TGV or ICE:
– 59 Wh / places / km for an ICE 3
– 48.5 for the TGV Duplex
– 45 for the EMS Transrapid technology but …
– 52.7 for Chuo Shinkansen with EDS technology
Repairs and new parts are more expensive than off-the-shelf alternatives. In case of repair or replacement, the challenge is the adaptation to the volatile market of electronic components. In addition, the low market of Maglev train and the important specificity of the components make the spare parts very expensive.
EDS systems have a major downside. At slow speeds, the current induced in these coils and the resultant magnetic flux is not large enough to support the weight of the train. For this reason, the train must have wheels or some other form of landing gear to support the train until it reaches a speed that can sustain levitation.
The different types of industrial permanent magnets required by Maglev are classified into four families, the largest of which is composed of rare minerals thanks to their magnetization rigidity, the enormous energy they can provide and the coercive fields that make them almost insensitive to demagnetizing fields. Rare minerals, however, raise issues about their availability, as the market for connected objects and electric vehicles is expected to grow strongly by 2030. The impact on prices could be significant.
Europe and America set back
Attempts to install a Maglev in the United States have all failed. As sarcastically explains David Brace, from Kruxe Technology: « Basically, America is that land of cars, trucks and planes. – when is come to personal transportation for people between cities. America doesn’t believe in this model because the ‘Car, Plane & Oil company’s’ have lobbied for decades to prevent this from evolving. »
The European continent, a leader in high-speed, is particularly keen to capitalize on the technical and especially financial mastery of the high-speed conventional train, symbolized by the TGV in France, the ICE in Germany, the AVE Talgo in Spain and the Italian model, the only country where two high-speed rail companies operate on the same lines, by concurrence. The European model has been sold in Korea, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and recently in Morocco. It is systematically presented to all American projects. Far from the utopia Hyperloop …
It must be recognized, however, that European culture is not a champion for big technological step. Europe has completely missed the digital turning point, as the continent does not have any members of GAFAM or any mobile giant. Europe looks with big fears the coming of the Chinese CRRC, while the japanese Hitachi is already present in Britain and Italy.
Maglev in Asia
The Chinese Transrapid is today the world’s only high-speed maglev system in passenger service, in Shanghai, China. It runs at 430 km/h over a 30 km track. It was completed in 2004, but no other systems were built, and the German company that designed it, Transrapid, closed in 2008. The train runs well, but suffered from prohibitive construction costs. It has high energy costs, said to be due to inefficient traction, rather than maglev itself. (19.9 kWh per seat 100km, vs 7.7 for high-speed-rail).
In Japan a Maglev project seems the most successful. JR Central, which operates the existing Tokaido Shinkansen Line, plans to start the Tokyo-Nagoya section of the maglev line in 2027, and the Tokyo-Osaka service in 2045. Named Tokaido Shinkansen bypass, it will more than halve the current shinkansen time between Tokyo and Nagoya to 40 minutes, and between Tokyo and Osaka to 67 minutes, JR Central says.
Japan’s shinkansen, traditionnal high speed train, is crucial to the national psyche as a symbol of high-tech might. Finding the will to build its successor, despite 20 years of economic and demographic stagnation, is proof of the nation’s determination to remain a technological pioneer.
Interesting thing : while the central and local governments usually offer to defray the cost of building bullet train lines, private JR Tokai is no waiting for financial support from the government, except the government is providing ¥3tn in soft loans. The private company intends to shoulder the entire £66 billions (¥9 trillion) cost of building the maglev line.
As wrote the Financial Times, there are many critics, however, who regard the Maglev as a symbol of everything wrong with innovation in Japan: an unprofitable, capital-hungry white elephant with no export prospects and a threat to the existing shinkansen. « The maglev constitutes not only an extraordinarily costly but also an abnormally energy-wasting project, consuming in operation between four and five times as much power as the Tokaido shinkansen, » researchers Hidekazu Aoki and Nobuo Kawamiya wrote in 2017.
In China, the CRRC consortium recently presented a Maglev capable of reaching speeds of 600km / h. Given the train’s tremendous speed, a trip by train could be even faster than traveling by air under certain circumstances, Ding Sansan, the head of the team developing the new train, told the Chinese newspaper Qingdao Daily. Some media outlets reported that the train would begin service in 2021, but the company didn’t give an exact date — and rail experts say years of testing will be required before the train is ready to carry passengers. « The Chinese maglev is very much a research project at this stage, » Chris Jackson, editor-in-chief of London-based Railway Gazette International, said. « There are no firm plans to develop a commercial route. »
The developments of this technology and all the crucial issues that will arise from it will be looked with great attention in the railway sector. Wait and see…