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About this Article
Written by: Terry Brown, John Dacquisto
Written on: December 6th, 2011
Tags: transportation, electrical engineering, energy & sustainability
Thumbnail by: Yosemite/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
This article was created by co-authors Terry Brown and John Dacquisto. Terry was a junior majoring in aerospace engineering at USC with an interest in transportation systems. John was junior majoring in Electrical Engineering. Born and raised in Annapolis, Maryland, he left the mid-Atlantic to explore life on the other side of the country. He is very interested in the interdisciplinary nature of electrical engineering, especially relating to alternative transportation technology. Outside of science and engineering, John enjoys reading, good conversation and new experiences.
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Volume XIV Issue II > Maglevs: The Future of Flying Trains
Maglev trains have the potential to revolutionize how we travel. The trains levitate using magnets, zipping through the air at speeds above 350 mph. These high speeds would allow for maglev trains to be a realistic alternative to flying, and they use very little energy and emit no pollutants during transportation. They require little maintenance, and can help to reduce growing road and air congestion. From their history, technology, and costs to the future potential, maglevs are nothing short of an engineering feat.

"Where's my Flying Car?"

“Where is my flying car?” has become an idiomatic expression often used to decry one’s frustration with the lack of advancement of modern technology. With more and more technologies that had only existed in the realm of science fiction crossing into reality, it seems puzzling that one of its main staples, the flying car, has not made the leap yet. Mankind is making progress; while flying cars may not exist in the original sense of the term yet, flying, or, rather, floating trains are already in existence. Several countries and private corporations have already begun researching and implementing the use of magnets to power high-speed trains, commonly referred to as maglev (short for magnetic levitation) trains.
Maglev trains have potential to revolutionize how we travel. The trains themselves are less costly and noisy than conventional trains and they require less maintenance due to their levitation eliminating most of the friction. Maglev trains use far less energy than conventional trains and emit no pollutants. High speeds allow for maglev trains to be a realistic alternative to flying, and they can help reduce air and road congestion as more people are moving around the world. Despite these benefits, creating a large-scale maglev system is a daunting task. The infrastructure for the trains does not currently exist, and must all be built. The track contains almost all the components needed for the trains to work, and generalized cost projections put the price of maglev tracks at around $10 million per mile. Once the infrastructure is built, however, maglev trains become inexpensive to operate due to their simplicity and lack of required maintenance. While the initial startup expenses are high, these trains have the potentional to make travel faster, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly [1] [2]. Although maglev trains do have some setbacks and challenges to overcome before their widespread adoption, the technology has proven itself a worthy successor to high speed rail through projects of both small and large scales.

History

Though one might assume that the maglev is a brand new technology because they have only become widely adopted in recent years, its origins actually date back to the mid-19th century. The first mention of related technologies appears in a rough description of the maglev concept given by Charles Wheatstone of King’s College in the 1840’s [3].
The first demonstration of a maglev train on a test track was completed by German company Transrapid International in 1971. Japan was not far behind, holding a demonstration of their first levitating train in 1972. By 1977 Japan was able to propel a maglev train at over 320 mph. This top speed continued to improve through the 1980s and 90s, with Japanese maglev reaching a world-record 361 mph in 2003. Throughout the 80s and 90s, general excitement about maglev trains reached a high point. Many different potential routes were mapped out crossing Europe, Asia, and the United States without a true understanding of the costs required for building these routes.
China, typically a leading country in the development of alternative energy and technology, had long been interested in developing maglev as well, but lacked the economic means to do so. Taking advantage of their booming economy, they started designing and testing maglev technology in 1999. By 2001 they had begun construction on a 20 mile maglev route linking Shanghai to nearby Pudong International Airport. The train embarked on its maiden voyage in 2002, and reached a top operating speed of 293 mph in 2003. In 2004 the train became the first publicly accessible maglev train offering regular commercial service, and it continues to carry commuters today.
The 2000s have generally seen a worldwide lack of enthusiasm for maglev trains. Germany, Japan, and China remain invested in spurring maglev growth, but most other countries are unsure of the new technology. The unfortunate current reality of maglev is that despite its futuristic appeal, efficiency and speed, the cost of building the infrastructure required for maglev operation is often too great when conventional train travel is a much cheaper option. As the technology improves and becomes less costly, driven by a need for increased fuel efficiency, environmentally sustainable travel, and skyrocketing road and air congestion, maglev may eventually become a more compelling alternative to traditional means of travel [4].