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Transport / Mass transit

Japan’s maglev train has broken its own world speed record twice in a week

Earlier today, a super-fast maglev train in Japan set a new record for train speeds. According to its operator, Central Japan Railways, it travelled at 602 km/h for almost a whole 11 seconds during a test run.

The seven-carriage train beat the 590 km/h record achieved just under a week ago by, er, the same train.

This, in turn, smashed the 2003 record (581 km/h) held by, yep, you guessed it. We’re not sure why the Japanese rail company is so competitive with itself, but it’s doing pretty well at the whole “moving really fast” thing. 

Two passengers watch as the train hits its fastest speed. Image: Getty.


So how did it manage it? “Maglev” is a portmanteau of “magnetic” and “levitation”, which may give you some clue as to how the technology works. Opposing magnetic fields, operated by electricity, keep the train hovering ever-so-slightly above the track while movement in the fields propels it along. 

Given the minimal friction experienced by the train – it’s only dragged back by air resistance, not by friction with the track – It’s not surprising that Japan’s model is the world’s fastest train. Below, we’ve compared it to fast trains elsewhere, plus the very slow Stephenson’s Rocket, the most famous of the early steam locomotives, which was chosen in 1829 as the engine which would power the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.

Click for a larger image.

Two out of the two three fastest shown here are maglev trains. In second place, however, is France’s electric TGV (train de grande vitesse, or “train of great speed”). It has a top speed of 320 km/h on commercial trips, but a modified model hit 574 km/h under test conditions. HS2, the high-speed rail network planned for Britain, would regularly travel at 400 km/h, making it 25 per cent faster than France’s high-speed network. 

Unfortunately for time-strapped Tokyo commuters, the planned maglev line between Tokyo and the central Japanese city of Nagoya, which should halve journey times, won’t be in operation until at least 2027. It also won’t travel at record-beating speeds, instead opting for a relatively stately 500 km/h.

Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport at the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, released a statement following the maglev’s latest test run arguing that British rail should be embarassed by the advances made in other countries:

Even though it is for Maglev rather than a conventional train, this world speed record is a hugely exciting milestone and shows the potential for high speed train travel. Considering that the UK developed the first railways, it now shows just how far behind we are falling

She also pointed out, however, that maglev technology’s “high costs” and “incompatibility with conventional rail infrastructure” makes it inapprorpriate for use in Britain. The Tokyo-Nagoya line alone will cost at least $48bn to build, partly as many sections will run through specially built tunnels. Japan’s trains may be faster, but they’re also a hell of a lot more expensive. 
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