Off the rails - the floating future of train travel

From Maglev, to ground-effect, how close are we to a public transport wonder solution? | By Isaac Hodgson

Off the rails - the floating future of train travel
Illustration by Noah Leigh

Have you ever felt like just floating home from work?

High-speed, environmentally friendly travel solutions have lived in our imaginations for years. The British hover train promised us speeds of up to 250mph, over double the current standard train speeds. Then there was the hyperloop design for hover trains which has been tried again and again without success (including Elon Musk’s failed project, quietly shelved in 2022).

Rail isn’t as detrimental to the environment when compared to driving or flying, but isn’t exactly environmentally friendly: 11.41kg of carbon is produced per person travelling from London to Manchester

So move over HS2, it’s Maglev, Vactrain and Ground-Effect technologies which are the current hotbed for rail travel alternatives.

Short for magnetic levitation, Maglev operates using powerful magnets attached to a train to propel it across a track containing magnets of opposite poles. The forces created levitate, stabilize, and push the vehicle. As a bonus, the lack of friction along the track contributes to a comfortable onboard experience, even at high speeds. A Japanese prototype reached a top speed of 375mph!

Maglev trains have been introduced in China, apparently with some success. The Shanghai Maglev line does not produce any greenhouse gasses through combustion. If only green electricity was used to power it, Maglev could be a completely zero-emission high-speed travel solution. 

Japan has plans for commercial operations too, and the UK considered it for the HS2 track between London and Manchester. Many other countries are also looking at it for potential future use, all eager to jump on this levitating bandwagon.

But the one factor that consistently rears its ugly head is cost. As with most environmentally friendly dream solutions, building the technology required is extremely expensive. Maglev cannot operate on existing train infrastructure, and an entirely new track (which uses precious materials) must be built. Japan’s expected budget for its Maglev system is £69bn, far exceeding HS2’s aim of £35-45bn.

And despite plenty of headlines gunning for its entirely electric model, not all electricity supplied to it is necessarily green. For instance, The Shanghai Maglev is impressively modern, but the Chinese power grid is still largely fuelled by coal

The impact of manufacturing such a huge quantity of magnets is also often overlooked, and when magnets are created, so are greenhouse gasses of over 66 times their weight.

But even if maglev could in some cases do more harm than good, we don't have to abandon the dream of floating to work.

Another possible route is Vactrains, a similar technology which is much less resource-intensive than Maglev. Operating in a vacuum-sealed tube, the technology aims to reduce all resistance on the vehicle. The low air pressure in the tube brings the trains to a point of lightness which means fewer magnets are required. They don’t quite fly: the travel experience might be closer to the stuffy Tube trains that Londoners know all too well.

China has already tested a maglev-using vactrain. There, the vacuum which the train travels within reduces resistance on the carriage, lowering the amount of electricity needed to reach high speeds for lower environmental impact. And although magnets are still used, a lower quantity is needed.

Professor María Luisa Martínez Muneta from the Polytechnic University of Madrid, Spain, where she coordinates the HYPERNEX research project, claims that these trains tackle both “reduction of travel time and environmental impact”.

There are even proposed alternatives which don’t rely on magnetic levitation at all, like Ground-Effect trains. These are essentially a plane flying mere inches from the ground. However, these still have several safety and technical issues to work through before they can be produced at scale.

Words by Isaac Hodgson