MAGLEV trains: Hope or hype?

provided by American Society of Mechanical Engineers

oon it will be decision time for two maglev demonstration projects in the United States. In 2003, the federal government will provide funds totaling $950 million to either a program in Pittsburgh or one in the Baltimore-Washington region, a move that could spur the deployment of maglev train transportation in many areas in the nation.

    That's the hope of maglev proponents, who consider high-speed magnetically levitated trains to be a feasible transportation alternative to airplanes and railroads. Of course, the possibility exists that the 30-year-old maglev technology could languish on the drawing board, beset by cost and infrastructure problems.

    Mechanical Engineering magazine asserts that maglev trains are “closer than ever to gaining a toehold in the United States.” In an article in the October 2002 issue, the magazine, a publication of ASME International (American Society of Mechanical Engineers), reports on the 18-year success of maglev trains in Germany and the high ambitions placed on a maglev transportation program under development in Shanghai, China.

    Maglev offers the primary benefit of a high-speed transportation alternative to regional air travel, which today is fraught with long delays and poor customer satisfaction. However, while travelers in Germany are whisking through the countryside at 411 miles per hour, not one passenger train corridor in the United States is serviced by a commercial maglev system.

    One reason is the high costs associated with building the tracks to support magnetic levitation. According to Mechanical Engineering, possible economic solutions include superconducting magnets inside trains, which are under consideration for maglev systems in Japan, and a technology known as Inductrack.

    Invented by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Inductrack relies on permanent magnets arranged in a Halbach array on the underside of a maglev vehicle. As the train moves along, it produces its own levitating force in coils mounted along the track.

    “A Halbach array orients a group of permanent magnets so that their magnetic fields cancel each other along one edge, while reinforcing each other along the opposite edge,” says Mechanical Engineering. According to the magazine, using Inductrack would produce no electrical power losses in the system.

    Transportation officials in charge of the maglev demonstration projects in Pittsburgh and the Baltimore-Washington region, as well as one in Southern California designed to alleviate congestion at Los Angeles International Airport, are working with the German company Transrapid, which designed the system in Germany.

    For more information on Mechanical Engineering, or for a copy of the article, “Ticket to Ride,” visit the Web site,

    ASME International is a 125,000-member organization focused on technical, educational and research issues. ASME conducts one of the world's largest technical publishing operations, holds numerous technical conferences worldwide, and offers hundreds of professional development courses each year. ASME sets internationally recognized industrial and manufacturing codes and standards that enhance public welfare and safety