Japan Commits to World's Longest Maglev Train System
It's a 32 year-long project that will cost, for now, a trillion yen, and reduce the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka to just 67 minutes. But is it worth the trouble and expense?
It may come as a surprise, but maglev technology has been in the development pipeline for more than half a century; yet to date, only four systems exist and only one operates on a commercial service basis between Pudong International Airport and Shanghai 18 miles away.
The reasons why such a compelling idea that uses the power of magnets to propel train cars along at speeds approaching commercial aircraft has largely to do with cost, as well as still evolving technology.
Until the last decade, two nations vied for leadership in magnetic levitation: Japan and German: the former operating a test section of 11.4 miles (18.4 km) of track that parallels the main bullet train line between Tokyo and Osaka; the latter's 21.7 mi (35 km) test track is located near Emsland, Germany. The Shanghai system, which began service in 2004, is based on the German Transrapid system that uses electromagnets to repel the train off the track a few millimeters, enough to eliminate the friction of metal on metal associated with conventional train boogies. The Japanese system is said to be based on permanent magnets which are powerful enough to lift the train a couple inches off the track. Japan's concerns about China's control of the rare earth resources with which to make super-powerful permanent magnets isn't just limited to Japan's ability to manufacture electronics and electric cars.
Now Japan's Central Railroad, which operates the Shinkansen high-speed train service, has committed to a decade's long plan to create the first long-distance maglev system, which will eventually link Tokyo and Osaka, a distance of 319 mi (514 km) at a staggering estimated cost of $112.44 Billion (1 Trillion Yen). The project will be built in two stages: Tokyo to Nagoya, opening in 2025; and Nagoya to Osaka, 2045. Operating at speeds in excess of 300 mph (503 km/h), each 16 car train will carry 1,000 passengers, cutting the time between these three key Japanese cities in half, taking a mere 67-minutes between Tokyo and Osaka.
The project is taking so long to complete, which admirably reflects the long-term vision of Japan, is largely due to topography. Each of the three proposed routes will require tunneling through miles of coastal mountains in order to make the track as straight and level as possible so maglev systems can reach their full speed potential. It's estimated that 60% of the track will be underground, which helps explain the long nose on the lead car. It helps reduce the shockwave of the train as it enters and emerges from those tunnels at 300 mph.
But maybe the larger question is why build such an expensive system in the first place? Is reducing the normal trip time down of just over an hour worth the investment? Part of the answer is the density of population in Japan where, on average, some 350 people live per square kilometer. Compared that with California, which has a similar land area, of less than 100 per square mile. Slashing travel time in half means you can more twice as many people in the same time frame: 2,000 passengers versus 1,0000.
Surprisingly, maglev systems aren't any more energy efficient than Japan's current bullet trains. Popular Mechanics compared the energy per passenger mile of maglev, high-speed rail, and a commercial jetliner. They calculated it takes 1180 BTUs of energy per passenger mile to propel a maglev train. The steel-wheeled Shinkansen requires 1200 BTU/passenger mi; the jetliner, 3,264.
Taking Japan's pre-Fukushima power generation mix into consideration, where 13% of electric power comes from nuclear reactors, 3 percent from hydro and 1 per cent renewables - the rest comes from coal (22%) and natural gas (18%) - the maglev produces 0.47lbs of CO2 per passenger mile. Electric bullet trains produce 0.48 lbs/psg. mile. The petroleum-burning jetliner generates 1.06 lbs per passenger mile.
Phase one of the project will begin with the extension of the current test track to just over 26 miles. JR Tokai, the central railroad operator, expects its environmental assessment on the Mount Fujiyama route by the end of the year.
On the American-side of the Pacific, the United States is considered a 'developing' country in terms of high-speed rail when compared to Europe, Japan and China, which raises the inevitable question of should this nation make this level of investment? On the face of it, the answer is probably no, at least not until those mega-regions like the Boston-DC corridor, have population densities comparable to Japan or China, which could justify the expense. First, we need to get Amtrak's Acela running at its full potential of 150 mph, instead of it current average of 80 mph. Then let's consider something more 21st century like high-speed rail.
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