Maglev dream rises in the east

Transrapid, a fully operational Maglev train capable of speeds of up to 500 kilometres per hour, has made its test debut in Shanghai, China.

Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains that devour distances as they whizz silently along overhead guideways have long been hailed as the future of travel.

Using strong electromagnets to replace the need for rails and wheels, Maglev trains have the potential to be faster, more efficient and quieter than conventional trains.

One of Maglev’s greatest champions was the Maverick electrical engineering professor Eric Laithwaite. who, in the 1970s, persuaded the UK government to invest in his ideas for a hover-train – a high-speed train without wheels, resting on a cushion of air and driven by U-shaped magnets which fitted like a saddle over a metal plate in the centre of the track.

Sadly, in 1973, the project was shelved, and instead of propelling the UK to the forefront of a transport revolution, Britain’s affair with Maglev came to an ignominious end with Birmingham International’s now defunct slow and temperamental shuttle service.

Now, Transrapid, a fully operational Maglev train capable of speeds of up to 500 kilometres per hour, has made its test debut in Shanghai, China.

The train, developed by German company Transrapid International entered trial service on New Year’s Eve, connecting Shanghai’s financial district with the city’s new Pudong International Airport.

Commercial passenger service is expected to begin in 2004, when three trains, each with six sections, will run at ten minute intervals, completing the 30 km trip in just 7.5 minutes. The trains are expected to carry ten million passengers by 2004, and 20 million by 2010.

In the new vehicle, magnets perform the functions of wheels and rails.

Lift magnets under the train’s body cause it to float about 1cm above the guideway, while other magnets embedded in its body maintain stability. Gap sensors check the distance between train and guideway 100,000 times per second. Once the vehicle levitates and the guideway is switched on, an electromagnetic travelling field accelerates the train. The speed is regulated by the field’s frequency, and the train can accelerate from 0 to 300 km/hour within 5 km.

The fastest train currently in regular passenger service is France’s TGV, which, although capable of 319 mph, normally travels at closer to 150 mph.