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Maglev Empire

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Rail transport has transformed the economies of many countries since its introduction in Britain nearly 200 years ago.  Today people can easily zip between cities hundreds and thousands of kilometers apart, while hundreds of millions of freight containers are shipped by rail every year.  In the United States the development of a national rail network was the fundamental economic, social and political event of the second half of the 19th century.  In China national and international rail development is twinned with manufacturing as the most important driver of industrialization in that country.  From the beginning of rail’s economic viability with Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Great Western Railway in 1830s Britain, to China’s current intent to redevelop the ancient Silk Road as a cross-continental rail and highway network, rail transport has always been an industry defined by massive investments and driven by grandiose ambitions for economic payoff and social transformation.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The ambition on display needs no caption.

Where is that ambition today?  What used to be a great project with clear payoff has now become a political albatross of sticker-shock and lukewarm commitments.  There exist proven and viable technologies to greatly increase the efficiency and speed of rail transport.  A few countries are taking them somewhat seriously, such as Spain with its AVE lines and China which boasts two records: the world’s fastest-average-speed rail line and the Shanghai Maglev Train, which hits a top speed of 431 km/h.  Compare to this the United States’ own high speed rail plans, which are currently underfunded and call for a top speed of merely 240 km/h – on a ride which currently averages 109 km / h between DC and Boston.

If the robber barons of the Rail Age merged with a hodgepodge of SimCity geeks, new urbanism advocates and wild-eyed futurists, the resulting organism would sweep aside the meek  and the cash-poor with blueprints for something even more radical than the first wave of rail development: a dense, hyper-efficient global network of standardized maglev trains, two tracks side-by-side each stacked three tracks high, threaded through the widened medians of intercity highways.

Maglev trains exist in several flavors, which have their own quirks and cost-benefit rap sheets.  Many people roll their eyes when they hear talk of maglev, equating it with one or both of “DisneyWorld / monorail” and “cost overruns.”  The most-cited example is the Shanghai Maglev Train, which I have had the pleasure of riding thrice.  Without getting into too many specifics, that train’s technology is built on a “smart track, dumb train” model in which the expensive technology is all in the track – a guaranteed road to financial ruin, as building out the track for any great length is magnificently costly.  There exist both working and in-development alternatives to this technology which use a “smart train, dumb track” model which is much cheaper and easier to implement, like a standard railway.  American Maglev Technology has a working test track in Powder Springs, GA which uses the electrical equivalent of seventeen hair dryers to levitate, and the Inductrack system is under development at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Several advantages exist in using maglev over conventional high-speed rail transportation.  Most important is the lack of moving parts, like wheels and suspension, enabling the train to achieve much higher speeds (up to 500 km/h on the Shanghai line) and reducing maintenance costs as there are no contact or moving parts to repair.  The absence of contact friction also means less power is required to propel the train forward; if you ever visit a working maglev test track you can push the train forward with your hand.  The only significant friction on the train is wind friction.  Finally, if the train’s electricity comes from 100% renewable energy, it is a carbon-free form of transportation once construction is finished.  With these factors combined, the high cost of maglev investment delivers a long-term payoff unsurpassed in other options for infrastructure development, short of fusion energy.

Now that our infrastructure investment demigod has chosen maglev as its weapon of choice, why multiple-stacked tracks between highway lanes?  Part of this was actually my old man’s idea.  He described it to me thusly: when we want to go from our Gadsden, Alabama hometown to Tuscaloosa to watch the University of Alabama play football, we have to drive over two hours on highways jam-packed with people traveling to the biggest temple in the state, Bryant-Denny Stadium.  What if the government, when planning the construction of the interstate highway system, had made the median wider and placed rail tracks between the lanes?  We could take a train to football games, and not have to contend with traffic or drunk drivers or parking.  Then imagine any other road trip you would take involving the interstate highway system – for the right price it could be replaced by a rail journey, all while not having to cut any new path across the countryside for the railway.  Stacking them three high, thus producing six maglev tracks in one corridor, was my idea – the freight and passenger capacity would be unprecedented.  Goodbye congestion, hello reduced transport costs!

Tomorrow, though, I don’t want to go from my hometown to Tuscaloosa.  I want to go from Beijing to Moscow.  Great!  With our global maglev rail network, I could probably complete the trip in under 20 hours.  Flying would be faster, but remember – I could travel 9000 km by train in under 20 hours on a trip that would take six days on current rail infrastructure.  Perhaps the greatest advantage to personal travel would come from less ambitious, halfway-across-the-continent journeys.  London to Istanbul could be done in just over six hours, and instead of flying above the clouds, all of Europe’s countryside and cityscape glory would zip past visible from ground level.  And let’s not stop with overland routes!  Spain and Morocco have been in talks for some time to build a rail tunnel underneath the Strait of Gibraltar to connect Africa and Europe.  The Bering Strait has been awfully lonely for the last ten thousand years or so since people stopped walking across its land bridge – Buenos Aires to Singapore by rail would be just a ticket purchase away.

A new golden era of rail travel would open once significant portions of the global network were operational.  With so many destinations more easily accessible to the average human being, whether for business or pleasure, global connection would be a much greater part of day-to-day life.  If its energy sources are clean and renewable, transportation would fall off the list of most polluting industries.  Opportunities of all sorts would radically redefine the outlook of billions of people.  Workers who now travel into New York City on an hour-long train ride could move to DC and make the trip in the same amount of time.  To get really ambitious you could put the trains in vacuum tubes to remove air friction and enable speeds of up to 8000 km/h.  This would put you on the other side of the planet in less than three hours.

It is no time to be cautious!  Since a global, super-high-speed rail network is likely within the next 500 years, let us start now and be magnetically levitated into the future!


Written by Preston

July 15th, 2010 at 6:22 am

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  1. [...] is one of the indirect benefits of transportation technology like the maglev trains profiled on Brain Canvas last week by Preston. Trains that can easily reach speeds of 500 mph [...]

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