Yoshiyuki Kasai Headshot

Superconducting Maglev a Revolutionary Concept

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Reprinted from The Daily Yomiuri, August 1, 2011 by courtesy of The Yomiuri Shimbun.

The invention of the railway in early 19th-century Britain was a revolution that represented a major advance in transportation technology.

Almost two centuries later, the basic concept of steel wheels running on steel tracks reached its ultimate expression with the emergence of Japan's Shinkansen, which offered unprecedented high-speed performance and safety for intercity passenger transport.

Today, having significantly improved the Shinkansen over the past decades, the Superconducting Maglev or SCMAGLEV, a superconducting magnetically levitated linear motor car, has made its debut as the latest advance in transport technology to emerge in Japan. This revolutionary system combines a cruising speed equal, at 500 kph, to that of a cruising airplane, with the convenience and transport capacity of the Tokaido Shinkansen.

The key innovation of the SCMAGLEV lies in the powerful superconducting magnets mounted on the vehicle and coils arrayed along both guideway walls, which enable the cars to levitate and run. As the train is magnetically held in the center of the guideways, it will not derail, ensuring a higher degree of safety than even the Tokaido Shinkansen, which has a 46-year accident-free safety record.

Superconductivity is a phenomenon where electrical resistance of certain metals falls to zero at ultralow temperatures (for niobium-titanium the SCMAGLEV train adopts, the temperature is minus 269 C). Meeting zero resistance, it is possible to apply a large electric current and create an extremely strong magnetic field. This superconducting magnet is the key technology that enables levitated travel at very high speeds. Car interiors are kept at a magnetic field equivalent to that found in ordinary living environments by shielding the superconducting magnets and coils.

In May, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister reached a decision in accordance with the Nationwide Shinkansen Railway Development Act to proceed with the construction of the Chuo Shinkansen, adopting the superconducting magnetically levitated linear system to connect Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka via the Southern Alps route. The minister also determined that the Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) would construct and operate it. JR Tokai will finance the entire cost of construction, over 5 trillion yen ($64 billion), to cover the initial route between Tokyo and Nagoya with the goal of inaugurating service in 2027.

When the Chuo Linear Shinkansen starts operations between Tokyo and Nagoya, travel time will be reduced from the current 96 minutes to 40. Completion of the line through to Osaka will bring the current 145-minute travel time down to 67 minutes.

Transforming Japan's main transportation artery into a dual trunk-line system with both the Tokaido and Chuo Linear Shinkansen not only ensures keeping transportation links open in the event of a natural disaster, but through route diversification and greatly enhanced service will also bind even more closely together the major cities along the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka route and contribute to the revitalization of the entire Japanese economy.

In addition, the SCMAGLEV represents a major environmental contribution by Japan that has the potential to greatly enrich people's lifestyles. For while its high-speed performance and convenience will encourage people to shift away from aircraft and automobiles, the SCMAGLEV will consume only half the amount of energy, emitting one-third the amount of carbon dioxide compared to aircraft or passenger cars.

In today's world with diversified transportation technologies and lifestyles, there is no one-size-fits-all transportation system such as the railway that suited the 19th-century environment.

In the case of the SCMAGLEV, the conditions under which its full potential can be realized are limited to areas of dense population and high economic activity. A major prerequisite is the existence of a large potential market willing to pay a little extra for ultrahigh-speed transport with smaller environmental consequences. The areas around the Tokaido Shinkansen and Chuo Linear Shinkansen offer perhaps the most ideal conditions in the world in this respect. The population along these corridors exceeds 60 million and more than 140 million people use the Tokaido Shinkansen annually.

Assuming a slight increase in the total number of passengers with slightly raised rates, the combined revenue for both the Tokaido Shinkansen and Chuo Linear Shinkansen will enable profitable operations in the first year of the Nagoya service, with profit increasing each year thereafter. If new developments along the new route are taken into account, profitability will be even higher.

Of all the Shinkansen trains operating in Japan, only the Tokaido Shinkansen was constructed without government subsidies, and has been profitable since its first year, combined with conventional line revenues. This situation will not change in the case of the Chuo Linear Shinkansen.

The foundations of a SCMAGLEV-related manufacturing sector will be established through orders for components and products for the initial stage of construction of the route between Tokyo and Nagoya. It will consolidate its evolving manufacturing base by getting further orders from the planned construction aiming to reach Osaka.

The SCMAGLEV is a combination of divergent, cutting-edge technologies. Once inaugurated, the Chuo Linear Shinkansen will give rise to consistent and high levels of demand for maintenance, renewal and improvement for advanced technologies. This will enable the SCMAGLEV sector to grow into a pillar strong enough to contribute significantly to Japan's industrial and technological competitiveness.

However, we should not be satisfied with the SCMAGLEV running along just one route in Japan. We should aim to further broaden the use of this revolutionary system that will lead to improved performance and reduced cost.

A series of Shinkansen lines were opened after the inauguration of the Tokaido line, beginning with the Sanyo, then the Tohoku and Joetsu, moves that expanded the market for Shinkansen-related industries. In the case of the SCMAGLEV, however, expanding the technology into the international arena along with development in Japan should be considered.

Looking at the world from this perspective, after the Tokaido and Chuo arteries, it is the northeast corridor in the United States, connecting Boston, New York and Washington, that best satisfies the conditions for favorable SCMAGLEV operations.

Over a year has passed since a joint Japan-U.S. team began focusing on this corridor. Japan would provide SCMAGLEV technology and system integration skills, but the key for realization is whether the United States can organize a privately financed entity to construct, maintain and operate the northeast corridor maglev.

The federal and local governments also face severe financial constraints, and as with Japan, the feasibility of the project hangs on whether or not it can be privately owned and operated.

The result of preliminary research in the United States shows that the huge reduction in travel time afforded by the ultrahigh-speed SCMAGLEV is sufficient to bring about a significant enough shift away from automobile travel to enable a highly profitable SCMAGLEV operation and attract private investment.

Still, even with an entirely private project, the approval of regulatory authorities is required for constructing essential infrastructure.

The Federal Railroad Administration's view of U.S. high-speed rail project is that "the railway lines running throughout the country have to form a single network and therefore, it is necessary to make standards uniform across the country."

However, most of the U.S. rail network is single track, not electrified for freight traffic, and completely unsuited for high-speed rail. The United States is a vast country. Due to its size, long distance intercity travel in the country is, and will remain, the domain of air transport with shorter distances being predominantly covered by automobiles. The best way to utilize the SCMAGLEV would be to offer it as an alternative to shuttle flights and automobiles that have reached saturation levels along the northeast corridor, improving the flow of the whole transport network of United States. How to gain the understanding of the many parties concerned is our greatest challenge and where our priority lies. We are entering completely uncharted territory, but we cannot stand idly by. History has taught us that rationality and legitimacy ultimately prevail. With this in mind we are proceeding along the path we have set ourselves hand in hand.

Kasai is the chairman of Central Japan Railway Co.