Exactly 20 years ago, in the Spring of 1998, the German Government approved the project to build the world’s first high-speed maglev railway line. The plan was to link Berlin and Hamburg with what was effectively a development of British Railways Research Dept., and Professor Eric Laithwaite’s “Linear Rotating Machine”. The invention by Eric Laithwaite took place in the 1960s, and a little over 30 years later, in 1997, the world record speed for this form of traction achieved a speed of 450 km/hr. In effect, rendering the Japanese ‘bullet’ trains to what might be described as ‘semi-fast’!!
There has of course since then been a lot of development of high-speed rail on conventional tracks, but the UK has still not caught up with what it had essentially begun over 50 years ago. There have been claims, notably referred to in “Wikipedia” that the idea was first put forward in or around 1904, and under a US patent, followed by a similar series of “patented inventions” in Germany during the 1930s, and yet another attempt in the late 1960s in the US. All of which proved to be simple experiments along the way, with the greatest rail based advances taking place in the UK and Germany between 1978/79 and 1984/85.
The “Transrapid” project in Hamburg in 1979, and the simple Birmingham ‘maglev’ people mover built on the linear induction motor concept devised by Professor Laithwaite some years earlier. The Japanese also embarked on the development of magnetically levitating high-speed trains, but the technology they adopted required super-conducting electro magnets, which was perhaps a limitation on its prospects for mass transportation.
Today there is only one implementation of the original Transrapid design, the one linking Shanghai to Pudong International Airport – a distance of 30.5km. There had been plans to expand within China, but costs proved excessive, and existing high-speed rail provides the solution across China’s rail network. In Germany, the original plan to build a line across to Denmark and Holland was also ruled out on the grounds of costs.
It seems unlikely that – given the improvement in conventional steel wheel on steel rail technology – that the maglev idea will be anything other than a might have been.
It was all looking so much different back in the 1990s, when I wrote this article for Electrical Review:
Some further reading:
- Maglev Memories
- Linear Motor Trials 1975
- The ultra-high-speed train founded on British research – but found in Japan
- Eric Laithwaite – Obituary