Maglev Industry Gains Momentum, But Is Big Cost A Turn-Off?

In meeting room G of San Diego’s Manchester Grand Hyatt, Neil Cummings was preaching yesterday to the choir—which in this case is the 20th International Conference on Magnetically Levitated Systems and Linear Drives.

“I call it the new Iron Horse,” said Cummings, referring to the maglev industry’s vision for high-speed trains driven by magnetic levitation technology. He invoked the name of Abraham Lincoln, “who was a railroad lawyer before the Civil War,” and reminded his audience that it took 50 years to get the transcontinental railroad built.

Ah, if only it was that easy.

As the president of the American Magline Group, Cummings heads a private consortium that wants to build a high-speed maglev train from Anaheim, CA (i.e. Disneyland) to Las Vegas, NV (i.e. casinos). The project proposed by the California-Nevada Super Speed Train Commission would adopt maglev technology used in China by Shanghai Transrapid, which moves passengers 19 miles between the Pudong International Airport and downtown Shanghai at speeds of roughly 220 mph.

Cummings argues that Maglev is a technology whose time has come, but he also concedes, “You can’t build a mass transportation system without federal support.” The 269-mile route from Anaheim to Primm, NV, would be the longest maglev line in the world, and would cost between $11 billion and $16 billion. At that price, critics say that’s one train that will never leave the station, but Cummings says Interstate-15 is heavily congested and airlines are struggling to maintain service on short hops.

Maglev trains use only electric power, levitating on a cushion of air that eliminates friction (and screeching rail noise) and the aerodynamic design enables trains to reach unprecedented speeds. The world record of 361 mph was set in 2003 by a Japanese maglev train. Since the Shanghai Transrapid began commercial service in 2004, an urban maglev also began operating in Nagoya, Japan. South Korea plans to begin construction of a similar project in the next five years.

The costs are huge, but the maglev industry leaders who gathered in San Diego this week have plans for at least four other U.S. projects, including a line from Baltimore, MD to Washington D.C., and from Atlanta, GA, to Chattanooga, TN.

Another intriguing project under consideration is ECCO, an electromagnetic cargo conveyor to move cargo containers to regional distribution centers from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, CA. The all-electric cargo conveyor system would help the ports meet a five-year plan intended to dramatically reduce air pollution, particularly diesel particulate emissions from trucks now moving the cargo containers.

Technology innovations also are making such projects more feasible, including the use of a new and powerful type of permanent magnet that is made of a neodymium-iron-boron alloy. For urban maglev designs, the magnets are made in long bars and mounted in special arrays in the undercarriage of passenger cars. The bars are arranged in a configuration so that the magnetic orientation of each bar is at a right angle to the magnetic orientation of adjacent bars.

The arrangement, called a Halbach array, generates a strong magnetic field below the magnets. As the car moves forward, the magnetic field generated by the Halbach array induces an electric current to flow in copper cable embedded in the track in ladder-like rungs. The electric current flowing through the cable in the track then generates its own magnetic field, which repels the field generated by the Halbach array.

The train is propelled by a separate, electric-powered system called a linear synchronous motor that is  embedded alongside the track.

“There are no real moving parts,” says Kevin Coates, a maglev industry consultant. “It’s energy efficient and financially sustainable… There’s no reason not to do it right now. We need jobs and one of the best ways to put people back to work are these public infrastructure projects.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

Trending on Xconomy