Trains might have been the icon of the American Old West, but after the era of the automobile began at the turn of the 20th century, the locomotive slowly faded into the background of popular transportation methods here in the States. As cars became more sophisticated, new highways took priority over railroad construction. Shortly thereafter, the invention of the engine gave birth to commercial air travel, and new railroad construction was all but snuffed out. Trains became the pack animal of the vehicular world — great for hauling freight across the country, but unpopular as a method of personal travel.
But that’s just how history played out in the US. Elsewhere in the world, railroads thrive. In Japan especially, trains are an important part of every day life — so much so that the small country practically relies on them to run. It would make sense, then, that locomotion technology in Japan is the most sophisticated in the world, pushing the limits of speed and efficiency ever higher.
Earlier this year, Central Japan Railway’s prototype for its newest seven-car maglev L0 Series train obliterated land-speed records, topping 374.69 mph during operation tests, beating its own record of 372.82 mph set just days earlier, and solidifying itself as the world’s fastest train. The previous speed record was set in 2003, also in Japan and on the very same test track, by the MLX01 prototype train, which hit 361mph.
Maglev trains are able to reach such blazing speeds by reducing friction between the track and the car. By using both permanent and electro-magnets to create a current on the rail, the trains travel along on what is essentially a small cushion of air (hence “maglev,” from magnetic levitation). The magnets act as propulsion as well, and with so little friction, the train can hit super speeds quickly. This new LO Series maglev is set to be bolting across rails by 2027, when the currently-under-construction Chūō Shinkansen –a 178 mile long railroad between the cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka– is set to be completed. This new line will drastically cut down an already speedy commute from Tokyo to Nagoya to 40 minutes, and from Tokyo to Osaka in 67 minutes, reducing travel times by over 50 percent.
Japan’s dominance in rail vehicle technology is evident in the number of record-speeds set by Japanese trains. Of the top ten speeds ever recorded, seven were set by Japanese vehicles, including the top three speeds. However, the money and resources needed to create these high-speed trains and the numerous railways they run on is exorbitantly high: The Chūō Shinkansen will cost an estimated $100 billion. To offset costs, many Japanese railway firms have began looking to license the technology in other countries.
A high-speed train set to be built in the America, connecting Washington DC and Baltimore with expected travel times of 15 minutes, is just one of the numerous proposed maglev lines around the United States — including a line connecting Los Angeles, California and Las Vegas, Nevada, and a line serving the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania metropolitan area, to name a few. We’re hoping that these proposed lines come to fruition, and lead to a new era of high-speed cross-country travel. Until that time, we’ll be staring across the Pacific in envy.