Weekly magazine Intermediair #25 – new speed revolution

Dutch weekly magazine “Intermediair” published a cover story on Maglev in edition #25, 2012.:

a new high speed revolution lures after half a century of failures
Amsterdam – Istanbul in 50 minutes
By car or train from Amsterdam to Eindhoven today is not faster than it was in the sixties. Flying over the Atlantic Ocean has become even slower. Faster transport methods failed one after the other. But a new technology promises a revolution – with 4,000 km per hour through a vacuum tube.
(…)

The article mentions Daryl Osters ETT (or is it ET3?) system as a promising development. The article also mentions Transrapid and Maglev in general as not a complete failure, despite not becoming the dominant technology it was once believed to be. It opposes that to Concorde that will never return to service, TGV as a dead-end and high speed trains in general as a matured development that will not go any faster than they already do.

Unfortunately, the article contains a number of disputable or incorrect statements (on maglevs).

To be specific, these are my personal comments on the article:

Lathen accident, silent death of an once promising technology
It’s a pity that the article emphasizes the Lathen 2006 accident again. The accident didn’t mark the end or failure of the Maglev technology. It merely painfully reminded us that even the safest technology can’t prevent some accidents from happening.
As a paradox, the accident also proved Maglev to be safer compared to conventional high speed rail as there is no such thing as wheel failure or derailment leading to horrific jack-knifed destruction of following cars as happened in the 1998 ICE Eschede accident. At comparable speed, in the Lathen accident only the first car of the Transrapid was demolished.

Hopefully the ET3 test track will not be abandoned as the one in Lathen now
The article hints at the decommission of the German Transrapid test facility in Lathen (TVE) as the death of the technology.
But in fact, the German government had approved Transrapid Maglev technology for commercial deployment as of 1991. After that the TVE was mostly retained for promotion, improvement and testing of newer vehicles, as well as training of staff during construction of commercial application routes.
Now the industry has no further need for tests as the latest vehicle generation is fully approved and (partly as a result of the credit crunch?) they don’t see a near term deployment of a maglev route, at least in Europe.
I wouldn’t say they gave up on it, as the industry is still holding on to its patents on the technology. Perhaps they hope to license it when the future brings a new opportunity?

Most important advantage of maglev is the absense of rolling resistance
I feel this has been over-emphasized by maglev promoters in the past. The rolling resistance is neglectable compared to aerodynamic resistance at high speeds. Only at low speeds, lack of rolling resistance is of any importance.
IMHO, other advantages of Maglevs are more important:

  • highly reliable and weather-resistant vehicles and track (no broken overhead wires, autumn leafs, no service disruptions for a few cms of snow)
  • no mechnical contact, so less maintance of track and vehicles
  • less noisy compared to conventional trains (where panthograph and wheels are the most audible noise source; Maglev has neither)
  • fast ac-/deceleration, allowing Maglevs to call at intercity distances like in the Netherlands, in contrast to high speed trains.

Discovery of superconductors made Maglev possible,
German Maglev used superconductors
Two mistakes in the article here. Maglev doesn’t require superconductors to work; any magnetic source will do. It was space age advancements in electronic controllers (microprocessors) that made Maglevs like Transrapid possible.
The German Transrapid only uses electromagnets.

Fastest existing train: TGV
The article mentions the TGV as the fastest existing train at 574 km/h. But actually that title belongs to the JR Maglev, at 581 km/h. Anyway, the TGV record used a heavily modified, shortened trainset with unconventional trackside changes. A normal, stock TGV trainset can’t run anywhere near that speed.
In fact, the fastest commercially operating existing train is a Maglev, the one in Shanghai (431 km/h).

Construction of maglev track is expensive
The article makes a somewhat out of context statement here. The construction of any high speed infrastructure is expensive, regardless of technology. Reduction in construction costs for Maglev over the last decades, compared to ever increasing costs for conventional high speed rail, makes Maglev more and more interesting. See http://namti.org/?page_id-275 for an American comparison. However it should be noted that in order to take ultimate advantage of maglev’s higher speed, the necessity of further minimizing curves can lead to substantial costs-tunnels, etc.

In some cases Maglev can already be competitive. For instance, the Dutch Ministery of Transport estimated in 2008 for the (now canned) 44km OV-SAAL project in the Amsterdam area:
- conventional rail costs (RER) to be 5.8 billion euro;
- and for Maglev 4.5 billion, despite being longer and unable to re-use any existing track in/near stations (!).
Reference (Dutch language only) “20082555 Eindrapport OV SAAL maart 2008_tcm195-215948.pdf”, Page 9
Note that the infrastructure component of both solutions makes up for roughly 3 billion.

ET3 costs would be low
The article suggests that ET3 construction costs would be low because the vehicles are light. I’m worried that the advantages might not pay out significantly, because:

  • infrastructure ROW is a major part of the costs as with any project
  • high speeds require stiff and precise construction, driving up the costs as with other high speed maglevs
  • so far, superspeed maglevs only function when the propulsion is in the track. So little cost reduction there unless there will be a radical change in propulsion.

But I’m not too familiair with ET3. Perhaps Daryl Oster can make some comments on this.

There needs to be a technology that combines both magnetic propulsion principles
The article author failed to notice that there already is a magnetic propulsion technology that functions at both high and low speeds. Both superspeed Maglevs, Transrapid and JR Maglev, have their motor in the track instead of in the vehicle.

frame “Flying on rails” – seperate propulsion magnets
This part of the article gets some details on the Transrapid wrong. There are no seperate “propulsion magnets”; the electromagnets in the track make up the engine. Transrapid uses further electromagnets to hover and align the vehicle on the track. It works from standstill to max speed. There is no motor in the vehicle.

Comments are closed.