Conventional High-Speed Rail Vs. Magnetically Levitated Trains: Was Maglev Ever In Contention?

Posted on 22 November 2011

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By Alan Kandel

It is not every day that I read commentary about that “other” high-speed rail technology: maglev, short for magnetic levitation. But when I do - be it an editorial or letter to the editor drawing attention to maglev - I can’t help but wonder what the motivation is behind such commentary? This is true now more than ever given the estimated price tag for California’s planned high-speed rail system is $98.5 billion (this cost in 2033 dollar terms). All things being equal, do magnetically levitated rail systems just make much better sense? In a Fresno Bee letter, Fresno County Council of Governments Transportation Technical Advisory Committee member Dennis Manning offers his take.

“Besides being 50% faster,” Manning writes, “maglev is proving to be cheaper, safer, quieter, with less environmental impact than conventional rail. Given the superior economics, maglev could be put in place years ahead of conventional rail.”

Manning references existing maglev systems in China and Japan and in China and Korea as well, “more maglev is under development.” In Brazil and Britain, meanwhile, this “wheel-less” mode is under consideration. In a sense, maglev is being considered for use here in the United States too.

So my question is, how much cheaper is maglev than conventional high-speed rail? The same goes for how much safer, quieter and “cleaner”? What about operations? Would maglev energy costs be less, equal to or higher than conventional HSR?

I went looking for answers. So, I contacted Manning directly. Who better to get answers from than the source? Here is what he had to say.

“One of the cost advantages of maglev comes from the ability to climb up to 10% grades where conventional [rail] is limited to about 3%. It means much less tunneling when traveling through the mountains. It also means the ability to achieve more direct routing.  

“Another reason for favorable maglev costs is the loading is less. The HSR locomotives require much heavier support construction for the concentrated wheel loading. Maglev is lighter and [the weight is] more evenly distributed.  

“Also keep in mind being a newer technology the prospects for lowering the cost of maglev over time is better than for conventional.” Manning wrote.

On energy efficiency, Manning surmised, “Efficiency is tricky. Conventional is probably more efficient below 200 mph, but less efficient as the speed rises. This is assuming the same load factor. If maglev enjoyed higher ridership then the per passenger mile efficiency would rise.”

Even understanding this, one still has to ask: If maglev is superior to conventional high-speed rail in nearly every respect, then why isn’t maglev enjoying greater market share?

Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic seems emphatic: “Perhaps more problematic is the fact that there is a very limited business case for maglev compared to traditional high-speed rail; unlike electric-catenary rail-running trains, maglev features expensive, proprietary technology that is completely incompatible with existing lines, so improvements in one location will only affect commuters in that area. A Baltimore-Washington maglev project does not help commuters between Washington and Philadelphia, unless they are willing to transfer in Baltimore; on the other hand, speeding up the existing tracks between the first two cities would be quite effective for reducing travel times for everyone in the corridor.

“A recent study of a proposed maglev line between LAX Airport and Ontario Airport, via downtown Los Angeles, demonstrated very few advantages of a potential magnetic line over a traditional one — it would be only about 10% faster, would attract only 10% more customers, but would cost an eye-popping 60% more to build. Worse, the maglev corridor would have no direct connections with the planned (and partially funded!) California High-Speed Rail project,” Freemark wrote.

Manning seems to have no qualms acknowledging, “Maglev faces the problem of unseating the incumbent. For every person working on a maglev system there are probably a thousand making a living on conventional, and that includes consultants. When it comes to California High Speed maglev never had a chance. Even before there was any consideration of maglev it was deemed that the system must be ‘interoperable’ with existing rail. No matter how superior maglev would be on other performance characteristics it couldn't be chosen.”

So one has to wonder, is this the last we’ll hear of maglev? Stay tuned.


Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.

The statements made in this article are rather incredible but sadly not surprising coming as they do from an old world old technology transportation guy.

To address just a few of the misstatements, SkyTran, a passive MagLev system can climb 20 degree grades, uses less energy than an electric car, costs less to build, maintain or operate than any traditional public transportation system, does not seek or require government subsidies, and travels at speeds of up to 150MPH.

Now who wants old line rail that is bankrupting our coffers?

If you too are tired of more of the same, contact me, please:

Ask Manning about the economics of unicorn driven flying cups.

Jay Tulock, Vacaville

In the article you asked many questions that I would like to address but not necessarily in your order, plus a few more.
• How much cheaper is maglev than conventional high-speed rail?
• How much safer, quieter and “cleaner”?
• What about operations?
• Would maglev energy costs be less, equal to or higher than conventional HSR?
• All things being equal, do magnetically levitated rail systems just make much better sense?
• If maglev is superior to conventional high-speed rail in nearly every respect, then why isn’t maglev enjoying greater market share?
• Is this the last we’ll hear of maglev?
There are a number of reasons to consider maglev:
1. Safety. This is our first responsibility and the number one reason for considering Maglev. Maglev is “grade separated” and is always elevated about 20’ above the ground and away from traffic, people and wildlife. Unlike transportation at ground level, it is almost impossible to connect with an obstruction. Bullet trains use fencing to repel people and animals, but that has proven inadequate.
2. Speed. This is everything in our global economy, and maglev is much faster than any 110 mph conventional or 186 mph “Bullet train” system. The speed of Maglev is over 300 mph, which is a huge attraction in itself. Without friction, the only resistance to movement is from air resistance, gravity and inertia. Some have compared Maglev train power requirements to that of a family sedan.
3. Environment. Maglev is electrically powered, and we can walk, drive, and use the area beneath as normal without dividing communities. It mitigates damage to wildlife habitat and ecosystems. Maglevs are quiet: no engine or wheel noise, only the sound of air, and no train horns at crossings.
4. Grades: Conventional and bullet trains can ascend a grade of about 2 degrees. Maglev does not have the problem of getting traction from the rails, so it can easily ascend 10 degrees.
5. Weather: The Maglev is designed to withstand extreme cross winds of the Midwest and the mountains. Because Maglev is levitated about 4 inches above the track, we simply go over ice and snow up to 4 inches. Because we use 12” wide concrete beams for our tracks, we can easily push snow accumulated over 4” off the beams.
6. Weight: Passenger cars of a different version of maglev weigh 53 tons each, and therefore the guideway must be built stronger and be more expensive. Our passenger cars will weigh less than 20 tons each.
7. Costs: I cannot give you a cost for the California system at this point. I can say that estimates for projects in the Midwest are running about $14-19 million per mile, compared to $75 million for “bullet trains”.
8. Obsolescence: The federal government’s Los Alamos National Laboratory states on their website, “So conventional trains have reached the end phase of their development.
“However, this [bullet train] technology has also reached the end phase of its development. One limiting factor for these trains is the expensive and time-consuming maintenance of the rails. So it is the mechanical friction between train wheels and metal tracks that limit this technology. This leads us to the development of the magnetically levitated (no friction) trains.” So bullet trains are an obsolete technology.
9. Maintenance: There are no moving parts of the Maglev trains, except doors and HVAC. The high-speed rail systems in Japan, the oldest operator of high-speed rail in the world, are being upgraded to a maglev system because maintenance costs are lower. Mechanical systems are maintenance intensive and financially draining. Therein lies the advantage of maglev.
10. Subsidies: The HSR in Japan and Taiwan are the only HSR in world that make money, all the rest must be subsidized about 50% by government. Our Maglev requires no subsidy. We want get truck freight off the highways and onto maglev. Our Maglev is light weight and therefore can carry a full semi-trailer or cargo container. The passenger service gets the limelight, but the freight service will pay the bills.
Unfortunately, conventional rail, bullet trains and maglev have so many differences that all things will never be equal. If you would make a list of all the characteristics and then rate each of these technologies, maglev is indeed superior.
Why isn’t maglev enjoying greater market share? Dennis Manning has it correct, “Maglev faces the problem of unseating the incumbent.” Steel-on-steel rail has been in use for 180 years and is the incumbent and will continue to be a workhorse for our economy. Politics is funneling huge amounts of money into the steel-on-steel industry to the detriment of transportation progress. It will be a sad day when we have to replace bullet trains with maglev, and all that money was a waste.
Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic seems to epitomize the tunnel-vision in the transportation industry by saying, “Perhaps more problematic is the fact that there is a very limited business case for maglev compared to traditional high-speed rail; unlike electric-catenary rail-running trains, maglev features expensive, proprietary technology that is completely incompatible with existing lines,” Maglev uses electrical power, but does not use over-head wires to transfer that power to the cars. Those catenaries are expensive to maintain and ugly. I have already addressed the construction costs, which blow bullet trains out-of-the-water.
They expect bullet trains to solve the problem, but they are barking up the wrong tree. Just like insisting that all rail systems be interoperable. That is like saying that airplanes must be interoperable with highways. They are different technologies. If you have to completely rebuild a bullet train track between point A and point B, why not rebuild it for the best technology?
We are promoting a U.S.-developed maglev technology, which is technically superior to any steel-on-steel system and much less expensive. So this is not the last that you will hear about magnetically levitated trains.
Please keep asking those questions.


Rick Canine, President
Federal Maglev, Inc

Concern about the interoperability of maglev and rail is exaggerated. Same concerns were initially raised over Japan's shinkansen (world's first high speed rail high speed rail)which has a different gauge from the rest of Japan's rails. However in most cases the tracks are adjacent in major stations, necessitating nothing more than a short stroll to another platform. Train schedules are coordinated and trains are run on-time so there can be as little as 2 minutes between connecting trains. Amtrak requires minimum connection times of as much as 4 hours between trains because it is not required to keep to schedule. The Tokaido shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka has a record of average deviation from schedule (either way) of less than one minute!

You ask precisely the right question: If Maglev is so superior, why has it ever since failed in the market? For the answer just have a look at Germany: Here we have developped Maglev to its final stage, we have examined dozens of Maglev projects, and finally we have skipped them all. There are three reasons for that:

- Maglev ist not interoperable: Just imagine a car not able to use normal highways; or an airplane requiring its own special airports: Nobody would buy it, even if it´s faster. The same applies for trains.

- Maglev is extremely expensive: All projects in Germany have been skipped for financial reasons. The Munich airport connector would have cost 200 Dollars per mile! This is nearly double the amount of comparable classic high speed rail.

- Maglev makes you dependent: For classic rail, you can buy your trains from any supplier. But Maglev is a proprietary system: Once you want to expand your network, you have to buy from one single supplier. Guess what that means for prices.

At the end of the year, the German Maglev test facility will finally be closed down and scrapped. After investing billions of taxpayer´s money Maglev has reached the death end.

You obvisily don't know the facts behind it.
The Munich airportline was 75% tunneling cost and only 25% maglev cost. If the line would be built with tradtional methods the tunneling still cost. Also the cost was not $200/mil more like 2,6bilion/23 miles =113milion/mile of 25% is maglev related cost, i.e. $28 million/mile, quite ordinary, almost low cost.

The trouth is that the mayor of Munich didn´t like maglev, and force the project to include reinsurance of the tunnels almost dubbeling the cost of the total project.

The Berlin - Hamburg line was blocked by DB who don´t like maglev.

Thats the only two project in germany, the other 10 you probably imagined your self.

"Maglev ist not interoperable" That is also true for shinkansen i Japan. I never heard that being a problem, have you?

"- Maglev makes you dependent:"
Not true, not even close. It use to be the case in the 90-tys. But today you cant even buy maglev trains from transrapid (they dont exist any more). But the technology exist and train ca be bought on both licens and unlicenced from Kina.

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