Test track needed to be more than doubled in size to accommodate full speed runs

Japan Railway Comp. (JR Tokai) (TYO:9022) (aka. "The Central Japan Railway Comp.)  is responsible for ferrying close to 400,000 passengers a day between some of the largest cities in central Japan.  While its fastest bullet trains can cut the transit time from Tokyo to Osaka from about 6 hours by car to about 2 hours and 20 minutes by bullet train, JR Tokai is dreaming of a next generation maglev system that could go even faster, completing the 500+ kilometer (310+ mile) journey in under an hour.

I. Meet the Chuo Shinkansen Maglev, a $90B USD Project

To do that it's been creating a superconducting magnetically levitated (SCMaglev) train design (a type of electrodynamic suspension Maglev), which travels along a U-shaped track at speeds of up 505 km/hr (311 mph).

To achieve that goal much work had to be done.  While the fundamental idea behind a magnetically levitated vehicle was first devised and patented in the U.S. in 1905.  Magnetic levitation is appealing in some ways -- with no moving parts, it has low maintenance costs, and some kinds of Maglev designs (such as JR Tokai's) self-stabilizing reducing the chance of the kind of crashes that plague high-speed rail-based trains.

Chuo Shinkansen route
Chuo Shinkansen route
Views of the proposed Chuo Shinkansen test route. [Image Source: TRIC/TAS]

But the cost of building a track is high -- very high.  JR Tokai estimates that it will costs ¥5T ($50.9B USD) to build the line from Tokyo to Nagoya alone, and as much as ¥9T ($91.7B USD) to complete a full line from Osaka to Tokyo, linking Japan's four largest cities (Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, and Tokyo).

II. Four Decades of Development is Finally Paying Off

By the 1970s -- when JR Tokai first began to toy with Maglev designs -- one crucial variable had fallen into place: cheap, reliable electricity.  But it need to perfect the physics of its travel mechanism to reach speeds high enough to make it worth building the expensive track, particularly when bullet trains were already on the table.
JR Maglev
The JR Maglev design gets its power from the wound wire in the track.  Superconducting magnets in the train induce magnetic fields in the wound wires, propelling the train at speeds of up to 311 mph.

By 1979 it had completed an unmanned test platform, capable of reach speeds of 517 km/hr (321 mph).  But it took a decade to develop sufficient safety controls and aerodynamics to start construction on a test track.  Construction of the The Yamanashi Maglev Test Line began in 1990 in the town of Aichi, near the city of Nagoya.  The track using wound coils along the track which are powered by local substations.  The train is equipped with superconducting magnets, which induced a magnetic field in the powered coils.  

Maglev development
The Chuo Shinkansen project has been in the works for decades.

This magnetic field drives the trains along the track at high speeds.  Since this is an SVMaglev style line, trains must first reach a certain speed using retractable wheels before the magnetic forces become powerful enough to drive the train once the train reaches around 30 km/h (19 mph).  The retractable wheel launching and landing process thus bear some similarities to an airplane takeoff/landing.

Between 1990 and 2008 the 18.4 km (11.4 mi) track saw test runs by MLU002N and MLX01 test engines.  To test the designs JR Tokai gave away free rides on the track.  An estimated 200,000 passengers were carried on these free rides.

III. Longer Test Track Allows Tests With More Cars

In June of this year the extension of the test track was completed.  The track is now more than twice as long as before, reaching a length of 42.8 km (26.6 mi) and also incorporates new features that are commonly necessary in Japan's mountainous landscape, such as tunnels.  The test track is at last ready for expanded testing of the Series L0 prototype, a front car co-designed by JR Tokai and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (TYO:7011).  

Completed in 2008 the Series L0 prototype features a 28 m (92 ft) front car capable of hauling multiple 25 m (82 ft) passenger cars, dubbed "L0 cars".  Each L0 car carries up to 68 passengers, with a stubby rear car carrying only 24 passengers.

Series L0 train
The Series L0 Front Car [Image Source: JR Tokai]
Tests on the 42.8 km track began on Thursday in Japan, with five L0 cars coupled to the front engine, for an entire train legnth of 153 m (502 ft).  The train succesfully reached a top speed of 505 kilometers per hour (311 miles per hour).

Japan's transportation minister Akihiro Ota was among the passengers to test the new track.  He remarks:

I experienced the ride at 505 kph.  My body felt the sense of speed, but it was not at all uncomfortable and conversation was possible as usual. There was not much vibrating.

This [success] provides pride and hope as a technology power, and it will also be important in dealing with natural disasters. We want to provide support for the realization of this technology.

The next step will be to complete an environmental impact study to ensure there's no glaring issues with the track, which is expected to pass through both densely populated regions and the Japanese alps.  If that goes well the test track will be further extended and 9 new L0 cars will be built, allowing for test runs with up to 12 total L0 cars (for a total train length of 228 m (748 ft)).

L0 in action
The L0 with a three car test on Thursday [Image Source: Jun Kaneko]

The finished design will feature 14 L0 cars, plus the front car and rear car, a design capable of hauling 908 passengers.

IV. JR Tokai Wants to Bring Maglev to the U.S.

JR Tokai is hoping to have the entire multi-billion dollar Osaka-Tokyo line complete about a decade later, in 2027.  The full line will be dubbed "Chuo Shinkansen".  While the Japanese government funded much of the early research and development in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, JR Tokai is fulling paying for the commercial line deployment itself.

Long a leader in high-speed rail, Japan has recently seen fierce competition from its rival, China.  China currently owns the only other active commercial maglev system in the world, a line in Shanghai.  China is moving aggressively forward with its high speed rail expansion plans, despite the embarassing setback of having to scale back its line speeds from record paces due to allegations of contractor corruption leading to shoddy construction.

The U.S. is currently pondering a maglev system of its own, but such plans remain in their early infancy, with few large commercial backers. U.S. maglev supporters should be cheering the Yamanashi line, as one of the most hopeful efforts in the U.S. -- The Northeast Maglev (TNEM) -- is backed by JR Tokai.  The TNEM is planned to connect Washington D.C. and New York City with a high speed maglev, passing through Baltimore, and Philadelphia along the way.

JR Tokai is helping with TNEM, a proposed U.S. line connecting New York and Washington, D.C.

JR Tokai chairman Yoshiyuki Kasai promises, "We want to export technology completed in Japan to the United States so that it becomes the international standard."

Source: AJW

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