Written by Christian Kurrer with James Tarlton and Laura Panades,
Magnetic levitation-based transport might soon enter our lives, providing faster, safer and more energy-efficient journeys. As longer distances can be covered faster and more cleanly, could they change the way in which we choose where to live?
Technology is paving the way for new means of transportation. Some of them are the smart versions of traditional vehicles (e.g. autonomous vehicles). Some were imagined first in the pages of science fiction (e.g. hoverboards). Others are born from innovation (e.g. superconductor trains).
Hoverboards are levitating boards upon which a standing person flies at a close distance from the ground. Today, their first users are getting to grips with hovering across indoor and outdoor spaces. Superconductor trains are able to achieve speeds greater than 500 km/h by eliminating the friction of the train wagons with the railway track. Superconductor trains have begun commercial operations in China and South Korea, and are under construction in Japan. In the EU, plans to implement them have previously been considered in Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, but only the project in Italy has recently seen renewed interest.
Potential impacts and developments
Magnetic levitation or ‘maglev’ is the technology behind levitating hoverboards and superconductor trains. It is based on the creation of opposite magnetic fields that repel each other to counteract gravity, thus elevating the magnetised objects off the ground. Maglev is applied in transport modes of all sizes, from individual hoverboards to high-capacity bullet trains.
Listen to podcast ‘Maglev transportation‘
The hoverboards of today still require special copper floors. Improvements to allow levitation on concrete or water are still underway. The first prototype was presented in 2015, but no further announcements have been made since then.
The first commercial superconductor train runs from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to the outskirts of the city of Shanghai connecting to the Shanghai Underground network. The service launched in 2003, delivering speeds greater than 500 km/h. Superconductor trains are expected to be deployed in Japan, serving the route between Tokyo and Nagoya (286 km) by 2027, and Osaka (410 km) by 2045, reaching speeds of 500 km/h. In the future, this technology is expected to further evolve into the Hyperloop – a travelling pod moving at a high speed inside a magnetised tube. A proposed route for the Hyperloop could in the future link Los Angeles with the San Francisco Bay Area.
In the long run, maglev trains offer the prospect of travelling faster than conventional trains without the environmental impact of aviation (noise and pollution), linking large metropolitan areas over distances of several hundreds of kilometres.
In addition to providing a convenient means of transportation, the introduction of maglev train technology could alter our perception of distances. As it allows us to cover longer distances in shorter times, it could result in a wider spread of the population within and without city limits. Superconductor trains could connect capital cities with secondary cities, thus leading to a resurgence of secondary cities with maglev stations.
Maglev trains require dedicated infrastructure, which could trigger a rethinking of EU transport policy. The Trans-European Networks for Transport (TEN-T) is an EU programme that seeks, among other things, to fund railway infrastructure, aiming at building a comprehensive network across the Union. It targets bottlenecks, as well as cross-border and multi-modal infrastructures (connectivity of railway with ports and highways). As the network is based on traditional railways, maglev would create an opportunity for a major overhaul across the network.
In contrast, hoverboards are still a relatively new technology, but could eventually revolutionise the way in which people and goods move over shorter distances, providing a fast alternative to walking, driving, or public transport, or a more efficient way to move goods around a factory floor.
Maglev hoverboards would at first be expected to share spaces with pedestrians. As the technology improves, hoverboards could manage greater levitation distances and faster speeds, bringing about the possibility of installing hoverboard-dedicated lanes to ease the coexistence of pedestrians and hoverboard riders in public spaces.
Maglev technology could, however, also develop in completely different fields of application in the near future. The EU-funded GABRIEL project (FP7 funding programme for 2007-2013), investigates the feasibility of introducing maglev for aeroplane landing and take-off, leading to a reduction in energy consumption, cost and noise.
One of the major stumbling blocks facing the introduction of maglev transportation is the fact that it requires a dedicated space and infrastructure, separate from current rail or road networks.
Commercial maglev trains currently only run in China and South Korea, but might begin operating in Japan in about a decade. The EU will need to evaluate whether it wants to remain involved in this emerging technology, by supporting the development of early commercial applications in selected locations, e.g. through the TEN-T funding programme. In the longer term, maglev trains will likely see their biggest potential in connecting metropolitan areas across national boundaries in Europe, and the EU could play a decisive role in creating the right conditions for such transnational links to become reality.
Read this At a glance on ‘Maglev transportation‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.
Read also ‘What if we were to travel on levitating trains?‘.