Advanced Rail Systems

One of the oldest forms of zero-emission transportation technology is electric rail transportation.  One such system – the New York City subway system – recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.  Just as the subway revolutionized travel in the 20th Century, advanced electric rail systems have the potential to change the way people travel in the 21st Century, and to increase the use of zero-emission transportation.  One particular family of rail technologies generating increased interest are magnetic levitation technologies (MAGLEV), which rely on magnetic suspension instead of conventional steel wheels on rails.

Transrapid maglev train in Shanghai, China.

Rail transport in general is one of the most energy-efficient forms of transportation. Due to reduced rolling resistance (for wheeled rail vehicles) and air resistance, rail systems can transport cargo and passengers with greater than twice the energy efficiency of road systems. The environmental benefits of this energy efficiency are increased when electric propulsion is used, especially if the electric power for the rail system is generated using renewable sources (e.g., wind, solar, or hydroelectric power).  Electric trains draw their power from either a third rail – as in the case of most subway systems – or overhead wires, the more common method.

Advanced electric rail systems that offer high-speed service (defined as 125 miles per hour or above) can attract travelers who would otherwise choose airplanes, thereby expanding the use of zero-emission transportation.  High-speed electric rail systems are presently operating in various locations around the word, including Europe and Asia. The French TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse, literally "high speed train"), which inaugurated service in September 1981, has achieved a speed of 320 mph under test conditions, and regularly operates at speeds approaching 200 mph.  High-speed electric trains have been operating in Japan since 1964, and more recently initiated service in China.

Transrapid maglev train in Shanghai, China.

Widespread use of high-speed electric rail in the U.S. would require both improved tracks and expanded electrification systems.  For these reasons, U.S. advocates of advanced rail often favor MAGLEV technology, which can achieve higher speeds, at higher efficiency, than conventional rail technology.  The most proven MAGLEV concept is the "Transrapid" system, which operates on a monorail using a synchronous linear motor for both acceleration and braking.  Transrapid was developed in Germany by Siemens AG and ThyssenKrupp, and a test system has been demonstrating speeds in excess of 300 mph since the late 1980s.  However, Transrapid adoption in Germany has been stalled due to budget constraints, and the first operational Transrapid system, achieving speeds in excess of 260 mph, was established in Shanghai in 2002.  Transrapid systems are being planned in several other countries.  In the U.S., federal funding was recently authorized for initial planning for two Transrapid systems: one that would link Las Vegas and Primm, Nevada, and a second to be located in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, or the Baltimore-Washington DC corridor.

Paralleling Transrapid’s evolution, MAGLEV technology has also been under development in Japan since the 1970s.  An experimental MAGELV system in Japan set a rail speed record of 581 km/hour (360 mph) in December 2003.  However, the Japanese MAGLEV technology is not yet being marketed commercially.

An alternative MAGLEV technology has been in development since 2000 by a U.S. firm, Unimodal.  The Unimodal "SkyTran" concept differs from the Transrapid and Japanese models in that it is a "Personal Rapid Transit" (PRT) system based on using MAGLEV technology to propel small cars carrying 2-4 passengers, as opposed to trains.

TransPower offers expertise and access to the leading suppliers of advanced rail systems, including MAGLEV technology.  TransPower can help public and private transportation providers determine which rail technology best meets their needs, and can assist advanced rail suppliers in identifying potential vehicle customers

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