China now boasts of a train that can hit a top speed of 600 kmph, reportedly making it the fastest land vehicle in the world. That does not compare too badly with a passenger jet, which attain cruise speeds of about 800-900 kmph. The fact is, even the Maglev train that China has produced literally skims through air to hit the dizzying speeds it does. Here’s all you need to know about it.
What is Maglev?
Maglev stands for ‘magnetic levitation’ and what it involves is the use of superconducting magnets to literally lift the train in the air, thereby removing the friction that a conventional train generates as the wheels move on the rails.
According to jrailpass.com, “Maglev trains work on the principle of magnetic repulsion between the cars and the track”. You know that when the like poles of two magnets are brought close together, they repel each other. That is the principle at the heart of Maglev trains. But the magnets used by such trains are what are known as ‘superconducting’ magnets, which are defined as “electromagnets that are cooled to extreme temperatures during use, which dramatically increases the power of the magnetic field”.
An electromagnet, to simply put it, is a magnet that can be switched on and off using electricity. The strength of an electromagnet can be varied by controlling the flow of electricity through it.
Instead of an engine, what a Maglev train has is a magnetic field that lifts it off the ground and also propels it forward. The US Department of Energy says that a Maglev train primarily relies on three types of loops: “One creates a field that makes the train hover about 5 inches above the guideway; a second keeps the train stable horizontally. The third set of loops is a propulsion system run by alternating current power. Here, both magnetic attraction and repulsion are used to move the train car along the guideway.”
Depending on the technology, Maglev trains are classified as being based on electrodynamic suspension (EDS) or electromagnetic suspension (EMS). The two systems are similar in many respects but the key difference is in the use of the magnet’s attractive and repellent force.
Which Countries Have Maglev Trains?
The idea of using magnetic fields for propulsion has existed for more than a century, but only three countries — China, Japan and South Korea — have Maglev train fleets although the US is said to be exploring routes for Maglev operations. Japanese rail operators claim that in 2015, “a manned superconducting Maglev train broke two previous land speed records for rail vehicles”, clocking 603 kmph.
While their speed makes them very attractive for cutting down time on long-distance travel, a deterrent behind building Maglev systems is the cost and the dedicated infrastructure needed for their operation. Moreover, Maglev systems aren’t exactly interoperable and cannot be hooked to existing systems. The cost factor is also driven up by the need of expensive rare-earth elements that go into the making of superconducting magnets.
What Are The Advantages Of Maglev Trains? Are They Safe?
Apart from the speed, Maglev trains are incredibly easy to maintain as they experience little wear and tear, given that there are no parts that rub against each other. That means there is no frequent need to change parts, which is the case with most conventional trains.
Maglev trains are also considered to be extremely safe as their design and the way they function rules out the scope of derailment. And, even at speeds of more than 500 kmph, passengers experience a smooth ride as the only friction offered is by air. Maglev trains also produce little to no air pollution during operation.