For a brief time in the 1980s, it seemed like trains powered by maglev — magnetic levitation — might just solve transportation problems everywhere, maybe even replacing air travel, thereby eliminating one of the most vexing sources of carbon emissions. Maglev trains don’t use fuel; they don’t require very much power by comparison with other sources of high speed travel; they don’t produce emissions; they’re quiet, require less maintenance than other trains, and can travel at speeds of 300 mph and more. In fact, the fastest maglev train to date, unveiled this past summer in Qingdao, China, can reach speeds of up to 373 miles per hour (600 kph).
So, why isn’t the planet criss-crossed by maglev trains? asks Dave Hall at The Guardian, citing the fact that the first maglev train was launched in the UK in 1984, after which Germany, Japan, and China followed suit. It seems to come down, as such things do, to “political will.” Without significant commitment from governments to reshape the transportation infrastructure of their countries, maglev trains remain a dream, the monorails of the future that never materialize. Even in China, where government mandate can institute mass changes at will, the development of maglev trains has not meant their deployment. The new train could, theoretically, ferry travelers between Shanghai to Beijing in 2.5 hours… if it had the track.
Perhaps someday the world will catch up with maglev trains, an idea over a century old. (The first patents for maglev technology were filed by a French-born American engineer named Emile Bachelet in the 1910s.) Until then, the rest of us can educate ourselves on the technology of trains that use magnetic levitation with the 1975 video lesson above from British engineer and professor Eric Laithwaite (Imperial College London), who “deconstructs the fascinating physics at work behind his plans for a maglev trains, which he first modelled in the 1940s and perfected in the 1970s,” notes Aeon. “Well-regarded in his time as both a lecturer and an engineer, Laithwaite presents a series of demonstrations that build, step by step, until he finally unveils a small maglev train model.”
Laithwaite’s small-scale demonstration would eventually culminate in the first commercial maglev train almost a decade later at Birmingham Airport. Here, he begins where science begins, with an admission of ignorance. “Permanent magnets are difficult things to understand,” he says. “In fact, if we’re absolutely honest with ourselves, we don’t understand them.” The good professor then briskly moves on to demonstrate what he does know — enough to build a levitating train. Learn much more about the history and technology of maglev trains at How Stuff Works, and keep your eyes on the Northeast Maglev project, a developing Superconducting Maglev train that promises travel between New York and Washington, DC in one hour flat.