Maglev – the Great Debate

Can a revolutionary sprint train cut the mustard over the long haul? David Binning sets out for a bit of high-speed trainspotting.


It sounds like the latest fad in new-wave, alternative medicine, but magnetic levitation has emerged as one of the most exciting and controversial technologies to be considered for the future of railways around the world.

Known as 'maglev' for short, the technology uses a sophisticated electromagnetic system to suspend rail carriages 1cm above a single track to create a fully frictionless and wheelless rail system.

And it works. Well, at least over short distances. And it is exceedingly fast.

Built by Transrapid International, a joint venture between German firms Siemens AG and ThyssenKrupp AG, the 30km maglev system connecting Shanghai's commercial Pudong district with the city's airport is currently the world's fastest commercially operating train.

Reaching a top speed of 431km/h, it traverses 45 minutes' worth of roadway in just eight minutes. If that sounds extreme, in 2003 Japanese researchers clocked a maglev train at 581km/h in test conditions.

"Enthusiasts are hailing maglev as a practical alternative to short-haul airlines."

With these speeds enthusiasts are hailing maglev as a practical alternative to short-haul airlines. They are also quick to highlight the environmental niceties of trains over fuel-guzzling planes. Communities faced with the prospect of maglev trains in their backyards are, however, less keen on the idea. Chinese police recently dispersed protestors opposing the extension of the Shanghai system. Residents fear dangerous levels of electromagnetic radiation as well as noise pollution.

MAGLEV – A PRICEY PROPOSAL

By far the biggest hurdle for maglev is that the technology is yet to prove its mettle over the long haul. Part of the reason for this is the high costs involved.

The central Japan railway company JR Central announced on Christmas day last year that it would go ahead with a plan to construct a maglev bullet train railway (Shinkansen) to run through the 290km distance between the Tokyo Metropolitan area and the Chukyo area centring on Nagoya. Set to start operations in 2025, it will cost around ¥5.1tr ($47.7bn) to build, funded entirely though the private sector.

"Reaching a top speed of 431km/h, the Shanghai maglev traverses 45 minutes' worth of roadway in just eight minutes."

Significantly more ambitious than Shinkansen is the proposal for an 800km system to solve the problem of the UK's congested north/south link. Despite fierce opposition, the British group behind the push – UK Ultraspeed – remains resolute that maglev is the best option.

Costing around $1.5bn to build, the 30km Pudong maglev has reportedly been haemorrhaging money from the start, a fact that helped to stall other projects such as the Shanghai-Hangzhou link and the highly ambitious Shanghai-Beijing system.

The latter was estimated at a cost of around $50bn; three times that to build a normal railway in China, according to some approximations. Even so, some argue that the money is worth it to narrow the travel time between China's two biggest cities from 14 to four hours.

Michael Komesaroff, managing director of Urandaline Investments of Australia and an expert on Chinese transportation, says that the Pudong system marks an important step forward in rail technology. The only problem is that it's a rather short step.

"Technically it's a wonderful thing; the problem is that it doesn't go anywhere," he says. "Other trains in other cities take you into the heart of the city. This one takes you almost nowhere."

GLOBAL ADOPTION SO FAR

There's a definite trend throughout many of the world's leading economies to embrace maglev technology. How much of this is borne of practical assessment and how much of governments trying to placate disgruntled commuters, remains to be seen. Several large-scale maglev projects have been proposed but none appear to have progressed very far.

In 2007 the Iranian government was reported to have agreed to spend $1.5bn on planning and feasibility studies for a 1,000km maglev system joining Tehran and the holy site of Mashhad. A spokesman for Schlegel, the German engineering firm overseeing the project, insisted just a few months ago that the project was running according to schedule.

"Big maglev plans have been proposed…but nowhere has construction actually commenced."

However, the company has since declined to comment further, inviting speculation that the project may now have run into difficulties. Aside from the engineering challenges, strained US/Iranian relations pose significant diplomatic hurdles too.

Big maglev plans have been proposed in the US, including a large system for Pennsylvania. Then there is the Randstad system proposed for the Netherlands, along with numerous plans from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.

A high-profile project for a maglev system linking Hamburg and Berlin was abandoned in 2000 due to concerns over cost. Another system has been proposed between Berlin and Warsaw, also to Prague and Budapest. But nowhere has construction actually commenced.

In 2000/01 there were murmurings from Transrapid about the potential for maglev technology to revolutionise Australia's rail networks. The company established an Australian office, appointed a CEO and sought to form a consortium with BHP (now BHP Billiton), Boral, Tenix and Multiplex, the Australian construction firm which oversaw many of recent problems at Wembley Stadium.

Maglev appeared regularly in Australian media reports of government tenders for a new high-speed rail link between Sydney and the nation's capital Canberra. Also planned was a city to railway link in Melbourne.

But Transrapid is yet to make a single dollar in Australia. And the fact that no one answers the company phones in Canberra now suggests that they've stopped trying.

UK CONTINUES MAGLEV DISCUSSIONS

It may come as little surprise that the liveliest debate over maglev technology right now is happening in the UK. After all, the British have always been passionate about their trains.

In fact, maglev technology was first developed by English inventor Eric Laithwaite with the world's first commercial maglev train opened in 1984 in Birmingham. It travelled 600m at only 42km/h and was closed in 1995 because of reliability and design problems.

"A recent treasury report concluded that the costs of the north south link proposed by UK Ultraspeed would blow out by up to £31bn to hit around £60bn."

So why is it back on the agenda? The UK desperately needs a radical overhaul of its north/south link to cope with increased population and expanding industry. It is also keen not to fall behind other EU countries.

Leading the charge for maglev in the UK is lobbyist engineering group UK Ultraspeed, which proposes an 800km-plus maglev line that would join London, Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. UK Ultraspeed CEO Alan James says that while the UK "slept through TGV and the Japanese bullet train revolutions, there is now an option to leapfrog a generation to go past 300km/h." Yet, just as in other countries, the UK's maglev revolution is still stuck at the platform.

Former British Airways CEO and head of the UK's largest ever public transport review committee, Sir Rod Eddington, is keen for it to stay that way. In documents published in 2007 Eddington described maglev as "speculative technology" with "fuzzy" economics.

Asked at the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport in April 2007 what precise evidence he had for dismissing the technology, he said: "The most powerful evidence to dismiss maglev is that it does not work anywhere in the world. [Even the Pudong system] is a relatively small stretch. It is not even to downtown Shanghai; it is just to Pudong." He did indicate, however, that current research, especially in Japan, could make a maglev-type solution possible in the future. China is also now in the race.

Eddington proposed a gas turbine locomotive as one alternative, dubbed by the British media as Eddington's Rocket. A prototype capable of 150mph has been built in the US, yet much greater speeds are apparently possible. These trains are faster than Virgin Pendolinos, currently the fastest trains in the UK with top speeds up around 125mph. But they are nowhere near the maglev league.

Maglev's other problem in the UK is a recent treasury report which concluded that the costs of the north south link proposed by UK Ultraspeed would blow out by up to £31bn to hit around £60bn

Looking at the record for Pudong, Urandaline Investments' Komesaroff says that "maglev has been a financial disaster".

"There are a handful of commercial maglev systems operating in Japan at the moment, although they all tend to be incredibly short and run at nowhere near record speeds."

But Ultraspeed's James contends that the treasury numbers are out by £31bn, and that he expects to soon see a correction to this effect on the public record. Asked how such an error could occur he states that documentation provided by UK Ultraspeed was simply misinterpreted.

James stresses that current costings for maglev are for between £33m and £37m per kilometre, and that this is comparable to conventional rail infrastructure. "In terms of sheer capital cost we know we can beat the benchmark," he says.

Ultraspeed also argues that direct comparison of building costs for maglev with slower modes of rail fails to recognise the raw economic benefits of super fast rail. Further, because there is no direct contact for many of the parts, maglev trains suffer leas wear and tear and therefore need less maintenance.

Within the next 12 months James expects to see completion of a full feasibility study for a UK-wide maglev system, at which point he feels Britain's bureaucrats will be won over: "I confidently expect that it will be a matter of prominent political debate and I have not one jot of doubt that a stage-one maglev with its compelling economics and its carbon benefits will arrive in the UK with a start being made after the next general election."

The UK next goes to the polls anywhere between late 2009 and early 2011. The British Conservative party has been very vocal in support of maglev, likewise its counterparts in Scotland.

JAPAN AND CHINA SPEED UP PROGRESS

Japan owns some of the world's most advanced maglev technology, having invested billions in research dollars since 1970. In fact, Japanese research into linear motor propulsion and non-contact running started in 1962.

More than 40 years later in 2003, at the Yamanashi Maglev Test Line, a manned three-car test train clocked a record speed of 581km/h. This is near to half the speed of sound. Passenger jet planes travel at around 960km (600mph). There are a handful of commercial maglev systems operating in Japan at the moment, although they all tend to be incredibly short and run at nowhere near record speeds. The announcement by JR Central that it would build a 290km system linking Tokyo and Nagoya by 2025 is set to change all that.

China is now the proud parent of a National Maglev Transportation Technology Research Center. The revered Chengdu Aircraft Industry Cooperation (CAC) in South Central China is also dedicating significant resources to maglev.

"China now has its own research programmes and says that it can do maglev better and cheaper than Germany or Japan."

The views and actions of China will have major implications for the global future of maglev technology. The Chinese government has already indicated the need for a major overhaul of existing rail systems and is in the process of completely reforming the rail ministry.

For an economy growing at around 10%, the need for action seems obvious. The money for the scheme is clearly available, there just needs to be further agreement on the best way forward.

"The Ministry of Rail is the last of China's ministries not to be reformed in any way," says Urandaline Investments' Komesaroff. "They are unclear on what organisational structure they should use."

One option on the table is to sell off each of China's eight intercity rail lines as individual concessions. But the lack of any global precedents has led to cold feet.

Pudong is all anyone has to go by and that particular German model is far too expensive for large-scale deployment. At the time the Pudong deal was signed, China's only other option was to buy from the Japanese. Of course this was and remains politically impossible.

China now has its own research programmes and says that it can do maglev better and cheaper than Germany or Japan. The growing number of maglev enthusiasts hope that its optimism is not unfounded. For now, the future of maglev seems likely to rest on these Oriental entrepreneurs.