In 2027, Japan plans to open the world’s first superconducting magnetic levitation (SCMAGLEV) passenger train line, the Chuo Shinkansen, connecting Tokyo and Nagoya. SCMAGLEV is a unique transportation technology developed in Japan. When materials are cooled to temperatures below a certain level, their electrical resistance approaches zero; this is the phenomenon of superconductivity. Small but powerful superconducting magnets allow trains to levitate 10 cm (4 inches) above the tracks and reach top speeds of 500 km/h (310 mph). “The maglev technology developed outside Japan uses larger, non-superconducting coils, so it can only levitate the train 1 cm [0.4 inch] and reach speeds of 430 km/h [267 mph]. Japan’s technology is fundamentally different.” explains Noriyuki Shirakuni, a senior corporate executive officer at Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central), the developer of SCMAGLEV. An SCMAGLEV train can travel at super-high speeds, and because it uses only half the energy that air travel requires and emits just a third of the CO2 per passenger seat, this form of transport is also superior from an environmental perspective.
Senior Corporate Executive Officer Director General, Maglev Systems Development Division Central Japan Railway Company
Japan began researching maglev technology in 1962. One particular focus of the research program was improving the durability of the superconducting magnets. The technology has been developed into its current shape on the Yamanashi Maglev Line, which was completed in 1997 north of Mount Fuji. Trains have been run past each other at a relative speed of 1,026 km/h (637 mph) and operated for up to 4,064 km (2,525 miles) per day, well over the anticipated workload for passenger service. And in April 2015 the current world speed record of 603 km/h (375 mph) was attained.
Foreign dignitaries have been invited to view the running operations, and applicants from the general public have been taken on rides to promote wider understanding of the technology. Construction work on the Chuo Shinkansen section between Tokyo and Nagoya is already underway based on authorization received in October 2014 from the national government. “The safety and comfort of SCMAGLEV are based on the philosophy behind the Shinkansen bullet train, one of Japan’s proudest achievements,” says Shirakuni. “This major transportation system, including implementation of SCMAGLEV, could not be realized without Japan’s advanced industrial capabilities.”
An L0 Series train running on the Yamanashi SCMAGLEV Line. Rides are offered regularly, with passengers drawn by lot. (Photo: Central Japan Railway Company)
SCMAGLEV uses liquid helium to cool the coils to minus 269°C (minus 516°F), making them superconductive. When electricity is passed through the propulsion coils on the guideways, the forces of magnetic attraction between them and the superconducting magnets on the train itself propel the train forward. The train runs on rubber tires at first, beginning to levitate at approximately 160 km/h (100 mph).
JR Central is also working closely with The Northeast Maglev (TNEM), a U.S. marketing firm, to promote the adoption of an SCMAGLEV system for a line from Washington DC to Baltimore to be built as a joint project of the Japanese and U.S. governments. This is part of a larger plan for the construction of an SCMAGLEV passenger line in the section of the Northeast Corridor from Washington DC to New York. The first steps toward implementation of the project have already been taken, with the U.S. government agreeing to grant the state of Maryland USD 27.8 million to fund its research on the proposed Washington-Baltimore link. Shirakuni’s outlook on the project is hopeful. “As we can see from the U.S. government’s decision to provide a grant, understanding of SCMAGLEV is progressing within the United States, and momentum towards implementation of the project appears to be building,” he says. “We look forward to contributing our technology to America as a symbol of U.S.-Japan friendship. I have high hopes that both the U.S. and Japanese governments will continue exploring ways to bring this plan to fruition.”