Share By Sachin Shenolikar
It’s a sunny May afternoon in New York City’s Central Park, and Japan Day 2014 is in full swing. Locals and tourists line up for free food and drink samples. Meanwhile, a program of traditional Japanese music and dance entertains a chilled-out crowd at the park’s bandshell. In the midst of all the excitement is a kiosk for the Central Japan Railway Company.
There’s a pretty long line for that, too, mainly children who want to check out a miniature model of a futuristic-looking white train. It’s the maglev train — the fastest locomotive in the world — and Japan is knee-deep in building a track for it from Tokyo to Osaka. But that’s not the main reason why the company is in New York City today. It has an even bigger mission: selling what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called “dream technology” to America. That’s a tall order, but if it’s successful, it will impact U.S. transportation in a major way.
Let’s first dial back and look at how maglev technology works. Short for magnetic levitation, maglev train tracks have powerful magnets that trains float over, as opposed to running on wheels (see video below). The system runs on electricity, so the trains are quiet and environmentally responsible. Also, there is no driver inside (notice there are no windows in the front). Instead, trains are operated from a control center using a small camera at the nose of the vehicles, which reduce operating costs.
Aside from those benefits, the biggest attraction of maglev trains is their speed. In 2002, the first commercial maglev system was introduced in Shanghai, with trains moving at 268 miles per hour. The next year, a Central Japan Railway train set a Guinness record by reaching 361 miles per hour during a test run. (As a comparison, the Amtrak Acela can reach 150 miles per hour).
Japan is building a route from Tokyo to Nagoya (approximately 200 miles) that will be ready by 2027. It will be extended to Osaka by 2047, about another 100 miles. Companies in Germany and France are also developing maglev trains, so the race is on to turn that innovation into business with the United States.
Planners envision a route that would run from the busy business sector of Washington to Boston, around 450 miles. A maglev train could travel from New York to DC in one hour — faster than a plane if check-in time is factored in. (Elon Musk’s idea for a Hyperloop from San Francisco to Los Angeles (around 400 miles) could make the trip in 30 minutes. He estimates its cost as between $6 billion and $10 billion.)
The big issue with maglev in the United States: Building the track is very, very expensive. Prime Minister Abe has told President Obama that a Japanese bank would pay half the cost ($5 billion) to get things started with a track from Washington to Baltimore (an eight-minute trip). Central Japan Railway has said it will not charge licensing fees. Federal grants could also help. But there will still be a pretty hefty bill for a private company.
In April, Abe took U.S. ambassador Caroline Kennedy on a test run of the train. After her maglev trip, Kennedy was positive but noncommittal, saying that the technology was “something that will bring great benefits to Japan and hopefully to the United States.”
There was also news this month that researchers in China are testing super-maglev trains that run in vacuum tubes and could reach 1,800 miles per hour — three times the speed of a passenger jet. New York to Washington in five minutes, anyone?
That is a dream for now, but we could see a regular maglev train system in the works on the east coast in the coming years — if enough money can be raised.
“A U.S. company could build it in less than 10 years, but the important thing is the cost,” he adds. “Who’s going to pay for this project?”
Watch this video to learn more about how maglev trains work:
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