Trains of the Future: The Shanghai Maglev

Written by: TrainSim-James

Main Image Above: The journey begins, a Shanghai Maglev rapidly pulls out of Longyang Road Station packed with commuters and tourists alike, all looking forward to racing along in the world’s fastest train.

There is no doubt that ever since the first railways were built, the main dream has always been bigger and faster trains. The global race to 100 mph was a tedious one, but despite the incredible achievement that was 4472 Flying Scotsman which won the battle in November 1934, the railway companies wanted to go faster.

Today, the fastest wheeled train belongs to France in the form of a modified TGV which reached 574.8 km/h in 2007, however this kind of speed is completely impractical on conventional or even high speed rails. The answer of course is to eliminate the rails completely, in place for something that would provide less friction and eventual maintenance all while achieving a safe and reliable high speed service, the answer was found to be magnetism.

The first to come up with a concept of a basic Magnetic Levitation or Maglev was surprisingly in the early 1900s, with Alfred Zehden of Germany being granted a patent for a liner motor propulsion system in 1905 and 1907. The first prototype of a railway car levitating on magnets was demonstrated in 1913, however there would not be a test with passengers until 1979 and the first commercial service opened between Birmingham Airport and Birmingham Station in the UK in 1984. The Birmingham Maglev only operated on 600 m of guideway and after 11 years it closed with the railcars being preserved in Peterborough and York.

Maglevs operate on a fairly basic principle, the track or guideway is essentially one huge electromagnet which when turned on can repel the train and lift if up off the track, like pushing the same poles on normal magnets together. The Maglev trains themselves do not house engines, rather they use the electromagnetic field to pull and push in the direction of intended travel. Being elevated off the guideway means there is no friction between rails and wheels, allowing for much higher speeds than ever seen before.

While each breakthrough is an exceptional one, the main contenders in the Maglev speed race were Germany and Japan, who unlocked the potential of the technology displaying incredible speeds which are just not feasible on conventional tracks. None of the lines in Germany or Japan opened commercially to passengers, in fact the German test track has been decommissioned and permission to demolish it was granted in 2012. The title for the first to build a high speed commercial service would go to the Chinese.

Construction of a Maglev line to connect Shanghai Pudong Airport and the outskirts of Pudong was put in the hands of Siemens and ThyssenKrupp and began in March 2001, the line runs for 30.5 km between the 2 stations with the depot at the Airport end of the line. Commercial services began to operate in 2004. The Maglev unit that operates along the line has a record speed of 501 km/h, normal everyday services however operate at 430 km/h, which is still the fastest train in regular commercial service in the world.

At a cost of $1.2 billion to construct, the line allows for 574 passengers to travel the 19 miles between the two stations in a near-unbelievable 7 minutes where they can either catch their next flight or get on a Shanghai Metro service into the city. The original track design had to change during construction, as the soil conditions were less than satisfactory and the number of pillars supporting the guideway had to be doubled.

In comparison to the incredibly high cost of the line’s construction, one way tickets only cost around $8 with airline ticket holders paying $6.40, returns are $12.80 and VIP seats double that. This makes it one of the cheapest high speed experiences tourists can buy with a lot of them travelling for thrill of being on a high speed Maglev, not for the airport connection.

The trains themselves derive from the prototypes built in Germany, thanks to the power of magnetism they can reach 350 km/h in a mere 2 minutes, and the operating speed of 430 not long after. The line itself largely exists as a sales tool which would prove the Maglev system as a viable one for regular, fast commercial service, the plans for a longer distance route between Shanghai and Beijing were eventually superseded by conventional lines and other plans to extend the existing line have been suspended.

The chief executive of ThyssenKrupp hoped the line would set an example and that other countries would follow suit in building Maglev lines, no future projects have so far been contracted however, although the Shanghai – Beijing line remains a possibility.

The Maglev system has the potential to change the way the world travels, the fastest train in the world owes its record to magnetism with the Japanese reaching 603 km/h which is around 1.8 km every 11 seconds. It does not stop there though, theory suggests that should a Maglev track be built with a depressurised vacuum tunnel surrounding it that the trains could reach ridiculous speeds in excess of 2900 km/h. This could see services like New York to Beijing taking a phenomenal 2 hours, or another possibility could be crossing the USA or the Atlantic Ocean in around 21 minutes.

The Shanghai Maglev Train is already breath-taking, with incredible views as the Chinese countryside rockets past the windows, commuting could not be made faster and any future lines could look at the Maglev in Shanghai as the start of tomorrow.

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The entire Shanghai Maglev network is elevated above the terrain as most of the land is already too developed to build on directly, it also massively increases the safety of surrounding roads & buildings and their occupants.

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Very shortly after departing Longyang Road, the Shanghai Maglev is already speeding along at 120 km/h (75 mph) and will soon be going a lot faster.

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Here the Maglev can be seen living up to its name, no part of the unit itself is touching the guideway allowing for zero ‘rail’ resistance that would slow the service.

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Based upon the German Transrapid, the Shanghai Maglev is unprecedented in its ability to capture the eye of many railfans, who for decades have constantly seen the fastest get faster.

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With the guideway being elevated above the landscape, the scenic view of the Shanghai Maglev darting above the trees is truly one to behold. If the trees were any higher it would look like a flying bullet!

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The sleek profile of the Shanghai Maglev is essential for the record-breaking speeds, the streamlined train dates back to the steam era but Sir Nigel Gresley would never have guessed what it could become nearly a century later.

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For the most part this is the view people have of the Shanghai Maglev, with the guideway sailing over the paths and roads below. Note the electromagnetic coils in the guideway, the life blood of the Maglev.

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Some 30 km from Longyang Road, the Shanghai Maglev pulls into Pudong Airport Station where passengers will connect to their various flights. The Maglev has managed to shave some 38 minutes off the average journey time, an incredible feat of modern engineering.

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Situated about 5 km from Pudong Airport is the Shanghai Maglev depot, there are spaces for 3 units with 2 usually in service every single day from dawn until dusk.

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With a closing speed in excess of 530 mph, the two guideways have to be far enough apart to reduce the shock-wave of air as they meet. The Maglev’s computer system also makes continuous adjustments to the magnetic field to keep the units stable.

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The depot is connected to the main line via a 2.4 km single guideway, the Shanghai Maglev uses ‘conventional’ points to switch between lines and watching them change is a real treat (although it’s nothing compared to the colossal MD-11 flying mere metres above your head)!

TrainSim-James

One Comment

  • It takes 7 minutes to navigate this 19 mile route with the 2 termini being the only stations on the line.

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