It sounds like something from a Japanamated techno-fantasy. But a real-life maglev train in Japan just passed its latest real-life test, levitating using magnets as it surpassed speeds of 310 miles per hour — faster than any other train in the world.
Journalists aboard last week’s 27-mile test run could see on overhead screens how fast the train was traveling, but they said they could barely feel a thing. From Phys.org:
The train does have wheels — it rides on them when the train is at low speed — then rises up above the track when it reaches approximately 93 mph. On the test run, the train reached its peak speed just three miles into the trip, which would suggest riders would feel pushed back into their seats, but those on board reported no such sensation. …
Maglev trains are able to travel very fast all while using less energy than conventional trains because they allow the train to ride on a cushion of air — friction from the wheels on the track is eliminated. Most in the field expect they will require less maintenance costs as well.
The train might be fast, but the project is moving slowly. The first leg of the new railway, between Tokyo and Nagoya, is supposed to open in 2027. The full line between Tokyo and Osaka is scheduled to be completed in 2045, at a cost of $90 billion. From Bloomberg:
Faced with the challenge of tunneling under Tokyo’s skyscrapers and the Japanese Alps, the project is unlikely to be completed on time even as Japan’s population is projected to shrink, eroding travel demand.
“I think it’s going to be finished very, very late,” said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research Corp. in Tokyo, which manages about $3 billion in assets. “If the population projections are correct, then the use of the bullet train will go down.”
Meanwhile, America’s first bullet-train project, which is still in the planning phase in California, is getting bogged down in lawsuits. The $68 billion California High-Speed Rail project is expected to link San Francisco with Los Angeles by 2029, carrying passengers at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.
Why is the U.S. lagging on bullet trains? Slate ponders that very question:
There were once plans for a California-Nevada maglev train, but they never left the station, and the money for planning them ended up being reallocated to a highway project.
Why are we so far behind Japan in transportation technology? The reasons are many, and perhaps the biggest is that the United States has been built around the automobile. Sprawling suburbs make mass transit really difficult. But it’s been clear for years that our McMansion-and-SUV version of the American Dream isn’t sustainable in the long term. And as our cities grow denser and our existing infrastructure ages, it’s just silly that we aren’t making more of an effort to replace it with something better and more futuristic.
The real obstacle today is a lack of political will to plan for the future, especially from the Republicans who torpedoed President Obama’s high-speed rail plans in his first term. Those plans were far from perfect, but they would have been a great start.
The following Reuters video shows the train traveling freakishly fast and Japanese dignitaries on board managing to look stoic and bored: