Future of trains: hyper speed, mag lev and vacuum

Future of trains: hyper speed, mag lev and vacuum

hyper speed trains 2 31december2099Technology applied to “old” trains and railways is alive and kicking. Future is bringing hyper speed, magnetic levitation and vacuum is still debated. A glimpse into present and future solutions.

Europeans and Asians currently operate the fastest high speed trains in the world. In Shangai the magnetic levitation Mag Lev can reach a maximum operative speed of 430 km/h and it’s not a new technology, since it has been operating since 2004. Japan already has in place the so called “bullet trains” and has recently unveiled projects to adopt mag lev between Tokyo and Osaka, an estimated distance of 315 miles, cost $64 billion, to be completed by 2045. In the meantime (Nov 2014) they are testing (read more here and watch a video) a  mag lev vehicle operated by the Central Japan Railway Company capable of speeds in excess of 500km/h (~311mph).

The top ten list of faster trains does not show any veichle or route in US. Are the americans just watching? Not at all. They are still studying future solutions. Elon Musk, co-founder of Paypal and Tesla Motors, shared with the public his idea to patent the Hyperloop, a magnetic levitation train, powered by solar energy, that shot into sealed vacuum tunnels, could reach twice the speed of an airplane. The idea of removing air from the tunnels, and with it the main reason of friction with trains, is not new and according to futuristic estimates, could allow the train to reach 4.000 km/h (all is well described in this BBC Future post).

hyper speed trains 1 31december2099We don’t know when we are going to watch this solution in the real world, because for sure it requires solid financing and politic consensus, definitely two scarce resources nowadays.

In the meantime, we are able to report a couple of interesting initiatives that we think can see the light reasonably fast; they are about the “software” (intelligence behind the railway world) and not the “hardware” (the trains or the infrastructures), so they can be seen as precursors and enablers of future technologies:

  • according to the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration a cloud-supported, wireless network of sensors can help to drastically improve the monitoring and maintenance of train parts (while the train is in service); this can help in terms of security, but also in terms of cost savings, because parts could be replaced only when it’s necessary and not in advance (i.e. exploting the entire life of the item subject to control);
  • by using new mathematical optimisation theories, SINTEF researchers have managed to develop a new method that finds the optimum solution of train schedules prioritization in just a few seconds; this way, traffic controllers can take fast decisions even when the number of trains involved is not easy manageable and help delayed trains back on schedule.

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