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Getting the train of tomorrow off the ground

Railway technology picks up speed in Japan

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration James Provost

Now that we’ve got computer phones and robotic vacuums, a lot of people may be wondering just where, exactly, the future has stashed our flying cars. The answer, not so surprisingly, is Japan, where the Central Japan Railway Co. is getting ready to begin construction of a railway for the fastest train in the world. The Chuo Shinkansen maglev train will employ superconducting magnetic levitation technology—namely, elevating train cars to eliminate friction and speed acceleration—to reduce the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka from two and a half hours (by current Shinkansen bullet train) to about 67 minutes. Here’s how they’ll do it.

1. Unlike wheel-based trains, the maglev train will be moved forward by the alternating attractive and repellent forces of a large magnetic field, created by running electricity through supercooled coils in a cradle-shaped track. Similar forces will push the train away from the base of the cradle and prevent it from banging into the sides.

2. In order to achieve maximum speed and energy efficiency, the trains themselves need to be as lightweight and aerodynamic as possible. The railway company has altered the nose shape and body structure of its original Shinkansen train to create a hyperefficient vehicle for the new system (called the L0).

3. The railway company has been testing maglev trains on an 11.4-mile track within the proposed Tokyo-Osaka line since 1997. The track will be expanded to 26.6 miles over the next year for further research, then extended to Nagoya and, finally, Osaka for full service. When the total line is complete, around 2045, it will span 272 miles.

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