Levitating Into the Future

Photos and text by Brett Bull

Business had been taken care of the night before. But the unpleasant repercussions were just beginning this morning in the newsroom.

"Your eyes are an especially deep shade of red this morning," she said.

"It was a hard negotiation session," I assured. I slapped my head into my right palm and dropped the set onto my desk.

"What sort of negotiation?" she demanded, leaning over. I knew this because her voice had become louder.

I pivoted my head upward. "Volume," I muttered. "Volume business always warrants a discount."

The emergence of a new convenience store in my neighborhood necessitates a visit with the manager before the grand opening for a little agreement as to alcohol and tobacco purchases. Junior reporter Junko can sometimes be a little naive when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the business world.

"Whatever the specifics," she added, "it obviously involved placing priority on satisfying your alcoholic urges over finishing the story about the magnetic levitation train, right?"

I slowly shook my head. Not to acknowledge the question, but because such feeble character attacks are a standard part of the news business. The report was out of my drawer and into her hands before she could cast comment on the stack of porno comics at the edge of my desk.

Fast. This train is fast. At its fastest, it literally floats on a magnetic field, becoming frictionless with the track. Fast, floating, and frictionless. Super, you might say. Actually, it is superconductivity.

All aboard the Maglev (from "magnetic levitation"), the name given to a revolutionary train technology in which the cars float above the track with the assistance of magnets and electricity.

Though in mere testing stages now at a specially prepared track in Yamanashi Prefecture, train transport in the not too distant future using this cutting-edge technology might just supplant the airplane and the Shinkansen bullet train as the preferred means for passengers to travel from Tokyo to Osaka and back. In the meantime, the testing track presents a chance for techno geeks, rail fans, and average thrill seekers to get a firsthand look at the possible future of train travel.

The Maglev zips along two parallel chutes of concrete running 18.4 km across mainly farmland in the shadow of Mt. Fuji. Each train is composed of three white cars, with those at the front and back shaped like a large duckbill at their ends. Interior walls are curved and smooth, resembling an airplane cabin. Seats are a spacious four across in each row.

At the beginning of each test run, the train slowly pulls from the station and progressively increases speed. Electromagnetic forces acting between large superconducting magnets on board the train and electric coils along the track propel and guide the train. After a certain speed is reached, the wheels fold upward within the carriage and the train levitates roughly a phonebook's height above the track. Drivers are not needed as a remote computer-controlled command center regulates the electric current through the ground coils and, as a result, the speed of the train.

A digital readout of the train's speed at the front of each car acts as a scoreboard for test riders to follow as the train progresses through each test. When the train begins to "float" on the magnetic field, the rumbling of the wheels stops as they lose touch with the track. Outside the window riders can catch a quick glimpse of farms and farmers as the train continues to pick up speed. Then it is into a tunnel. More speed. 395 kph. Ears pop. More speed. 440 kph. The walls of the cabin shake and the car rattles. The train holds at 450 kph for a few moments while lights mounted on the tunnel walls fly past the windows like film past a series of projectors. Then there is a gradual slowdown to a stop, from where another run begins in reverse. Total test time: about 20 minutes.

A new world record of 552 kph was set in one test run in 1999 with 13 passengers and a payload of 10 tons. A French TGV train still holds the standard train record of 515 kph. Beating out the French train put Japan's Maglev at the center of the world's technological stage.

Though the idea for this sort of train propulsion began in the early 1960s, it wasn't until 1972 that Japan constructed its first test Maglev vehicle. Testing at the proving grounds in Yamanashi Prefecture began in 1997.

Eventually putting this technology to use would indeed reap great dividends - or so say backers of the project. Traveling between Tokyo and Osaka currently takes about two and a half hours. The Maglev could cover this distance in 60 minutes. When the Shinkansen linking Osaka and Tokyo opened in 1964, it handled 11 million passengers. This total mushroomed to over 130 million by the late '90s. This, say proponents, is the reason the Maglev is needed.

But with Japan's birthrate declining to its lowest rates in history and its economy showing no signs of emerging from a 10-year slump, wouldn't the Maglev simply turn into a levitating tax burden rather than an economic boon? Germany thought so. They scrapped their Maglev plans in 2000 due to high costs and a lack of passenger demand. Proponents of Japan's Maglev think not.

"The inauguration of the Maglev will break Japan's stagnation, both politically and economically," says JR Tokai executive Chuji Morishita in a recent article in The Japan Times.

But before stagnation of any kind is broken, the Maglev is going to have to solve a number of significant problems.

Sixty percent of the train's test track has yet to be constructed. It will take those additional track lengths before the train can complete the necessary tests to prove its durability over time. Estimates reveal that completion of these tests could still be many years off.

The second, and perhaps largest stumbling block, is the staggering 8 trillion yen construction cost. Maglev track costs 20 percent more to construct than standard Shinkansen lines. Operation costs are double.

With budgets for the project drying up in the late '90s, the future of the Maglev appeared in limbo with construction of the remaining portion of the testing track left uncertain. But the program received a boost when a 100 million yen budgetary allotment for research was created by the Ministry of Finance for fiscal 2000. For now, all systems are go with tests open to the public taking place a few times each year.

Though taking a test ride is a nice Disneyland-like experience, convincing test riders of the value of the Maglev as a legitimate form of travel might be more than the government had bargained for.

"Do normal people like me use the Concorde even if it is faster mean of travel?" asks Maiko Ochiai, a 26-year old test rider. "No way. It is way too expensive. Maglev will be the transportation for only corporate people and rich folks."

For a more complete list of The Captain's stories visit www.bigempire.com/sake!

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