Right now, there’s a group of ex-politicians from the US being shown around Japan's under-construction Tokyo to Osaka maglev line, the first stretch of which (between Tokyo and Nagoya) is due to open in 2027. When ready, its trains will be able to reach speeds as fast as 500km/h, far speedier than the 360km/h trains the UK will be getting with High Speed 2.
That might seem like a bum deal for us - if we’re spending up to £50bn on a new cross-country rail line, our instincts might make us think that only the most advanced technology available will be value for money. It’s an understandable thought, but it’s misguided.
First, here’s Motherboard’s Michael Byrne on what that group of ex-politicians is thinking of when they look at Japan:
The proposal, simply called the Northeast Maglev (TNEM), is based on a new technology (old new technology, more accurately - it’s been in development for nearly 40 years) currently being tested on a short section of line outside Tokyo called Superconducting Maglev. Japan hopes to eventually drop some $100 billion on a 320 mile line between Tokyo and Osaka. The technology holds the current rail speed record of 361 miles per hour and offers a cruising speed of just over 300 miles per hour. The TNEM group hopes to convince President Obama and regional leaders to go in on a segment of maglev between Baltimore and Washington D.C., requiring some 30 miles of underground tunneling and theoretically cutting transit times between the cities from just under an hour to 15 minutes.
While America may be known as the land of the car, the northeast corridor between New York City and Washington DC has a public transport network that Europeans would recognise (even if they may also laugh at its inadequate, antiquated infrastructure that is in need of significant investment). Trains run at capacity as they’re cheaper than flying and faster than taking the bus, and - like HS2 - new lines are necessary to increase capacity.
Why not build maglevs if they’re the best trains you can buy, though?
The first reason is one familiar to London Underground, which has multiple tunnels built to different widths and which each require unique types of trains to be custom-built every time they're replaced. That’s much more expensive than buying ordinary trains which comply to standard gauge, and the same would apply with maglev - as a new method of transport that’s still in an experimental stage, we might make a mistake and end up choosing a gauge that doesn’t become the international standard.
Or, worse, we might get locked into having to buy our trains from the one company that has the patent on using that kind of maglev standard. We also wouldn’t be able to integrate the trains with the existing High Speed 1 line that goes through the Channel Tunnel, onto the rest of the European rail network. HS2 is going to be used for freight as well as passengers, so that connection is arguably vital for trade with the continent.
Secondly, the thing with very fast modes of transport is they take a lot of time to get up to speed. This is the reasoning behind Elon Musk’s impractical vacuum-tube Hyperloop, which would - if it works, it’s only theoretical right now - fire passengers at 962km/h between Los Angeles and San Francisco, reducing the time for the 570km route between the two cities to 35 minutes. Over longer distances it would be cheaper and more practical to use fast planes, and it can’t be used over a shorter route because it needs the full length of the tube to get up to speed. This applies just as much to maglev.
HS2 will be designed to handle speeds up to 400km/h, but there are few places a maglev train would be able to get faster than that before having to slow down again in time for the next station. Considering the physical size of the UK and the planned gaps between stations, going any faster than 400km/h isn't really any use.
One thing that does go in maglev’s favour is that the 286km line between Tokyo and Osaka is expected to cost roughly £55bn, which is cheaper than the estimates of more than £50bn for the 192km first phase of HS2. Also, while maglev trains do require more energy to run than conventional trains (and, as mentioned, repairs and new parts are more expensive than off-the-shelf alternatives), track maintenance costs tend to be lower than for normal trains as there isn’t any wear or tear.
In Japan, the government is facing criticism for investing in an ambitious new rail line despite forecasts that the country’s population with shrink significantly over the next few decades. That’s not going to be a problem for the UK, which could end up the most populous EU nation by the middle of the century - and for the key aim of increasing capacity, old-fashioned trains on wheels suit us just fine. Taking a punt on a new technology isn't worth the risk.