Pulling power

The first magnetic levitation trains are running. But is maglev really a viable global transport system? Many experts feel the concept is better than the reality. Helen Knight reports.

The next 12 months are make-or-break time for magnetic levitation trains. The technology will either make the leap from engineering curio to mass transportation system or – as sceptics believe – be remembered as the ‘Concorde of the railways’.

The world’s only commercial magnetic levitation system began operating successfully in Shanghai at the end of December. But after decades of R&D in Europe and Japan, serious doubts remain about the cost of the technology and its suitability as a successor to conventional high-speed rail – especially as the latter is now breathing down maglev’s neck in terms of speed of travel.

Announcements due this year could finally silence these doubts – or confirm them – when the US and Chinese governments rule on whether to build major commercial maglev routes. China and the US, both without an existing high-speed inter-city rail network, are the two largest potential markets for the technology. Their decisions will be crucial in the commercialisation of maglev trains.

Interest in the technology has been raised by the building of the Shanghai maglev, which links the city with its international airport 30km away in Pudong, running at speeds of up to 430kph (267mph). The system was developed by German firm Transrapid International and built at an estimated cost of $1.3bn (£740m).

The Pudong line was initially seen as the baby brother to a far bigger line linking Beijing and Shanghai, which would provide a huge boost to Transrapid, a joint venture between Siemens and Thyssen-Krupp, and could also go a long way towards establishing the technology as a viable alternative to conventional rail.

But despite the early euphoria surrounding the success of the Shanghai maglev, the likely cost of £12bn-£16bn for a Beijing to Shanghai line – amounting to almost the entire budget for China’s rail infrastructure for the next five years – has led to an element of caution creeping into the Chinese government’s deliberations.

Meanwhile, the Japanese, who have poured £1.3bn into their own maglev development over the past 40 years, appear to have taken a step back from plans for a high-speed line linking Tokyo and Osaka, despite achieving a manned world speed record of 580kph last month. Yutaka Osada, deputy chief of Central Japan Railway’s maglev research division, admitted recently that with the nation’s economy still suffering, government funding for the line was unlikely to be forthcoming for some time to come.

The UK’s own flirtation with the technology ended in 1995 when the world’s first maglev system, which linked Birmingham International Airport with Birmingham International railway station, was closed due to poor reliability.

Maglev is more expensive to install than conventional high-speed railways, with some critics claiming the technology is as much as 10 times more costly than rail. Maglevs have no wheels, axles, transmissions or pantographs, and are instead based on non-contact electromagnetic levitation and propulsion.

In Transrapid’s system – the only commercially available high-speed maglev system in the world – electronically controlled magnets situated on both sides of the vehicle and along its entire length, pull the car up to the height of ferromagnet packs mounted on the underside of the guideway. Guidance magnets, also located on both sides along the length of the vehicle, keep it in position relative to the guideway, while electronic controls ensure it constantly hovers at 10mm above the track.

A synchronous linear motor under the guideway is used to produce an alternating current, which generates a magnetic travelling field that moves the vehicle without contact. The speed can be controlled continuously by varying the frequency of the alternating current, and the train can be stopped by reversing the direction of the travelling field, turning the motor into a generator that brakes the vehicle without contact.

But by placing a large amount of the propulsion equipment within the guideway, rather than on the train, the cost of laying out the infrastructure along the route becomes much more expensive than conventional steel rails, said Rod Smith, professor of mechanical engineering at Imperial College. ‘I remain to be convinced of the benefits of maglev trains. They could turn out to be the Concorde of the railways: they are small, expensive and relatively loud. Is that what we really want?’

Critics also argue that developments in conventional high-speed trains have narrowed the difference in speed with maglevs to such a degree that the benefits of the system are no longer as clear cut. While maglev systems are capable of travelling at up to 500kph over long stretches, over shorter distances the speed is closer to 400kph. French TGV and German ICE trains can reach speeds of up to 300kph using standard tracks. ‘The speed of conventional high-speed trains has increased to such a degree that there is not that much of an advantage in journey times, except over long distances where the cost of the infrastructure makes it expensive,’ said Smith.

Upgrading conventional railway networks is always likely to be cheaper than installing an entirely new technology, and as an established system conventional rail also has a large supply base, making repairs cheaper and easier to obtain, according to Prof Roger Goodall, head of the electronic systems and control research group at Loughborough University. ‘The only way for the technology to be successful is for someone with the vision and money to build and finance a maglev system in its early days.’

But there is no fundamental reason why maglev should be more expensive than conventional rail for high-speed lines in the longer term, he said.

‘The Germans are convinced that the capital costs are not that much higher than new rail. They also believe maintenance costs are significantly lower, and I would tend to agree.’

As electronics are used to replace much of the mechanical equipment that can wear and require regular replacement on conventional rail networks, the system is claimed to be more reliable, with lower day-to-day running costs.

Maglev is also claimed to consume three to five times less energy while providing the same output as high-speed railroads, or alternatively can offer substantially higher performance for the same energy output as existing systems. This is because there are no losses due to friction and the linear motors are highly efficient, while the vehicles are low in weight.

The technology also offers some potential safety advantages. It will not allow more than one train on each section of track, and derailment is less likely due to the height of the guideway walls.

However, finding a market for the technology may remain difficult for some time to come, said Goodall. ‘If you can find two large conurbations with no existing railway, then that would be the place for a maglev link. But there do not seem to be many cities like that.’

This is why the US and China are so important to the commercialisation of the technology, and in particular to Transrapid’s bottom line. Despite rumours that the Chinese government has now abandoned the Beijing to Shanghai line, a decision will not be made until later in the year, once officials have had time to study the Shanghai Airport route in full operation, said Jochen Kruse, sales and marketing engineer at the company. ‘Why should the Chinese decide now, when they have only just built the new system, which is effectively a kind of test track for them? They will make a decision this year, but we don’t have a fixed date yet,’ he said.

While the future of the major line remains uncertain, the company is confident the government will give the go-ahead this year for an extension to the Shanghai link, either south to Wenzhou, or north to Nanjing, the latter forming the first stage of the possible route to Beijing. A further possibility is for the line to be extended to the site of the Expo fair, which is to be held in Shanghai in 2010.

In the US 2004 will also be a crucial year for Transrapid’s technology, with a decision expected on funding for one of three competing maglev routes. ‘The US market is dominated by planes and cars, so it has enormous potential. There are clusters of cities around 500km apart, which is a really interesting distance from the point of view of maglev technology,’ said Kruse.

The company also expects to enter a tender this year for a high-speed line in the Netherlands, linking Amsterdam and Groningen (around 150km) in one hour. Unlike the conventional high-speed rail with which the maglev system will be competing – which could link the two cities in an hour with no stops – Transrapid’s service would stop at seven stations along the route, and still arrive at the same time, the firm claims.

In Transrapid’s homeland of Germany, environmental impact hearings will begin in August on a planned route between the centre of Munich and the city’s airport, scheduled to begin operating in 2009. The hearings are due to last until November 2005, after which a final decision is expected. Backing for the Munich link may help to lessen the company’s commercial embarrassment at the cancellation last June of a planned route through the Ruhr connecting Dortmund and Dusseldorf, which had been planned to be running in time for the 2006 World Cup.

‘That was a disappointment for us, as we really didn’t expect the project to be cancelled,’ said Kruse.

‘It’s also quite hard to market a technology worldwide when we have to explain why we don’t have the system operating in Germany. But then again Germany is actually quite a tough market for us, because it already has a good high-speed rail network.’

Competing with the German ICE high-speed trains, and with the French TGV and Japanese Shinkansen (bullet trains), will be tough, even in areas where there is no existing network.

But the extra cost of installing the motor in the guideway can be balanced both by the long-term reduction in maintenance costs, and by the greater flexibility of maglev trains, said Kruse.

Unlike conventional trains maglevs can travel around tighter bends and climb hills with gradients of up to 10 per cent, allowing guideways to be built to fit the landscape, and reducing the number of costly tunnels, bridges and land cuts needed.

The Swiss are even planning a maglev network that runs underground. Transrapid is also working to reduce the cost of building the system as far as possible, said Kruse. ‘The technology is still quite young compared to rail, so there is a lot of development potential. Our work is focusing not just on making the trains faster, but also on lowering production costs, and as soon as we get some projects up and running, higher quantities will lower our production costs in any case.’

But none of this will be possible if the company fails to convince the Chinese and US governments of the benefits of maglev systems.

So the future of the technology may rest with the success or failure of the Shanghai Airport line, and all eyes are likely to be on the city for the next year at least.

The US: politics meets pragmatism

The US government has been agonising over the feasibility of building a high-speed maglev link for the past five years.

Some areas of the country are highly suitable for maglev technology, particularly its eastern seaboard. Stretching from the city of Boston in the north to Charlotte in the south, this covers over 1,288km and nine states with many densely populated cities.Amtrak’s Acela Express already provides a commuter service in the area, running at speeds of up to 254kph. But given the distances the service must travel and competition from airlines covering the same routes this is not fast enough.

In 1998, Congress passed legislation enacting the maglev Deployment Programme, aimed at demonstrating the technology in a selected US location. The following year states and agencies from across the country were invited to submit feasibility studies to the Federal Railroad Administration, resulting in the receipt of seven bids.

By 2001 a shortlist of two was announced, consisting of a 76km line from Pittsburgh International Airport to Greensburg, with stops downtown and in Monroeville and a plan for a 64km line from downtown Baltimore to Union Station in Washington DC, with a stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. These have since been joined by a route from Las Vegas to Prinn on the Nevada-California border, which would eventually form the first stage of a more ambitious 433km route from Las Vegas to Anaheim in Los Angeles.

Work on Pittsburgh’s design is around six months behind the Baltimore link, which plans to make an environmental impact statement available by the end of 2004.But further progress on either is dependent on the passing of federal funding legislation due last September. This was delayed in Congress and has yet to be passed.

‘To be able to pay back the private funds needed to complete the financial plan the challenge is to attract enough passengers who would pay the full fare without subsidies,’ said Suhair Alkhatib, project manager for Baltimore Washington Maglev at the Maryland Transit Administration.

The state has already spent over £6m researching the Baltimore-Washington project and will commit a further £330m if federal funding is given.

‘We have to show that maglev has the potential to supplement air travel for inter-city trips,’ said Arnold Kupferman, maglev programme manager for the Federal Railroad Administration. ‘Unlike France and Germany, the US does not have a high-speed rail link. Whether it arrives will be a political decision. If Congress wants to go ahead it will show its desire to do this in transportation legislation this year. However, there is no way of predicting its schedule and there are currently a lot of demands on federal funding from other quarters.’

Though the German Transrapid design is likely to be used by any successful bid, home-grown maglev schemes are also emerging in response to claims that Transrapid may not be suitable for use on commuter routes.

‘Transrapid has been actively lobbying to have its systems installed in this country,’ said chief operating officer Todd Webber of the Massachusetts-based MagneMotion group. ‘Its work in Shanghai has attracted a lot of attention. However, it is using a technology that has been around for about 25 years, but has spent that time looking for an application.

‘It has been developed for use as a high-speed inter-city link over distances of more than 100km. The system we are developing is aimed specifically at the urban environment.’

MagneMotion is in talks to provide the technology for one of the proposed schemes, though the details are confidential. – Julia Pierce.

SWITZERLAND: taking maglev underground

Switzerland is currently the only country developing a maglev transportation system involving the use of underground tunnels under a partial vacuum.

The High Speed Train Aerodynamic Rig (HISTAR) concept, developed mainly by engineers at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, proposes to link cities in the north of the country with a system of one-way tunnels 50m below the surface.

Pressure in these tunnels will be similar to that experienced by planes flying at an altitude of 15,000m and will be maintained by a series of vacuum pumps situated every 15km along the track. Reducing the oxygen levels in the tunnels will also help to reduce the risk of fire.

According to its designers the system will have hydraulic propulsion of over 1.5MW, enabling top speeds of more than 500kph.

The system will have the capacity to carry up to 6,000 passengers per hour in each direction. As reducing pressure in the tunnels will reduce aerodynamic drag, HISTAR will consume half the energy of a conventional rail service. ‘The system needs to be tailored to make sure it is economical and can gather both political and industrial support,’ said Dr Michele Mossi, technical director of the project.

By reducing pressure in the tunnels, the size of the shock waves created when running at high speed can be reduced. This allows the diameter of the tunnel to be reduced to 5m, compared to 10m for a TGV or 12.6m for the Japanese maglev prototype, making tunnelling cheaper.

‘The partial vacuum tunnel could be used by a TGV type of train, upgraded for its new environment, if the maglev technology proved unworkable,’ said Mossi. ‘However, maglev technology solves the problems of noise [due to the partial vacuum] and pollution associated with conventional trains.’

The group is studying the feasibility of developing an international Eurometro link between Geneva and Lyons, enabling trains to make the 100km journey in just 20 minutes. Construction costs would be similar to those of building an overground link, owing to the cost of acquiring sufficient land for the scheme in populous areas.

Land occupation in countries like Switzerland is saturated. Around 70 per cent of the population live on its northern plateau and need access to transport, but there is no land to expand roads. Unlike in France and the UK there is not much distance between towns – the spaces that need to be connected range between 30km and 60km. However, this is commutable, so forming a fast connection should ensure traffic levels are large and the system is profitable.

‘There are now too many obstacles to building a high-speed rail link that connects city centres. We must look underground,’ said Mossi.

‘SwissMetro can begin operation in 2020, if global financial support becomes available. Without this it will not go ahead and in 20 or 30 years’ time we will be in crisis.’

SwissMetro, formed to promote the project, is currently looking for financial support from the EU to develop a scale model and test tunnel to demonstrate the aerodynamics of the system. – Julia Pierce.