Let’s be courageous, part 21

(… continued from Let’s be courageous, part 20, posted on 24 Nov 2016).

If a train design employs magnetic levitation (maglev), the elimination of wheel/track friction and the reduction in train weight that can be achieved by avoiding the need for bogies provide, it is claimed, significant performance advantages over conventional wheeled trains: these advantages include reduced energy consumption, faster operating speeds, better acceleration and braking characteristics and the ability to handle steeper gradients. The guideway (track), we are told, can also be engineered with a much lower footprint and with up to fifty per cent tighter curves, which together with the ability to design to steeper gradients, allows the guideway to hug the landscape, rather than impose vast cuttings and embankments on it, and sensitive areas can be better avoided. Other advantages claimed for maglev trains are: lower pollution and noise levels; less vibration; lower maintenance costs and greater passenger comfort (see footnote 1).

Despite the claimed advantages, it is fair to say that the commercial exploitation of maglev technology for high speed transport has had fairly rocky beginnings. The Shanghai airport service, which operates at speeds of up to 430km/hr over a 30.5km link, is the only high speed system currently in commercial operation throughout the world. Whilst plans have been discussed for a number of high speed maglev systems worldwide, the only other one that has so far actually been started, as far as I can ascertain, is the 286km line between Tokyo and Nagoya in Japan, which is planned to operate at speeds up to 505km/hr and to open in 2027, and even this project has not been without its critics due, mainly, to escalating costs (see footnote 2).

Notwithstanding, maglev must surely be seen as a serious alternative to wheel-on-rail technology for high speed trains. So instead of dragging up the rear in the exploitation of wheeled high speed trains, HS2 could have provided the UK with the opportunity to be in the vanguard of the development of maglev – a technology in which we were once world leaders (see footnote 3) – albeit with the higher technical challenges and risk that being at the leading edge implies.

A response to the 2011 HS2 public consultation by a company lobbying for a maglev solution for HS2 makes interesting reading: efforts by this organisation to bring the advantages of maglev to UK decision makers predate this consultation response by at least five years. The document sets out the claimed advantages of maglev in detail, but a letter dated 1st July 2010 from the Chief Executive of the organisation to the recently-appointed Transport Secretary for the incoming Coalition Government, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, which is included in the response, is particularly interesting (see footnote 4). This letter complains to Mr Hammond that a letter sent by him to HS2 Ltd, shortly after he was appointed, which instructs that company to continue work on the wheel-on-rail scheme, means that “substantial Government funding has been made available to only one of the two possible contenders to prepare its case for the procurement competition” – effectively, the maglev option, if it ever was a contender, had been ditched by the incoming government.

This was, apparently, not what the Conservatives promised when in opposition. The consultation response also includes a 2008 letter from Shadow Transport Secretary, Stephen Hammond MP, in which he sets out the intention of an incoming Conservative government to “open a competition to select the optimum system ‘immediately on taking office, to enable construction to start by 2015’” and that this process will be open to proposals employing “all relevant technologies, including maglev” (see footnote 5).

What actually happened, of course, is that the incoming Coalition Government adopted the plans of the outgoing Labour administration without formal review and, apparently, without question. This Labour administration had, during the span of its government, undoubtedly cooled towards maglev, following a fatal accident on a test system and an unfavourable report commissioned from two professors from Imperial College and Lancaster University, which challenges a number of the claimed advantages of maglev (see footnote 6). A white paper published in 2007 condemned maglevs as “too expensive to provide value for money” and concluded that “the Government does not favour further development of maglev options” (see footnote 7).

It should be emphasised that the academics’ report only considered one version of maglev technology, the one used in Shanghai, and that the Japanese are using a different system for which the same conclusions do not necessarily apply.

Although Taxpayer’s Alliance Policy Analyst, Harry Fairhead, does not demand a review of the maglev option in his briefing paper Rich man’s toy: The case for scrapping HS2, I feel strongly that an independent assessment of this alternative technology is called for; after all things have moved on from 2007 and the conclusions reached then may no longer be valid. In particular, I would like to see the benefit cost ratio of a maglev HS2 compared with the high speed rail version, as the higher speeds achievable by maglev would surely benefit the BCR using the Department for Transport’s calculation methodology.

After all, maglev does have its enthusiasts. A Wikipedia article that I have found in my researches reports that the Shadow Transport Secretary was a member of a “Commons All-Party Rail Group junket to China and Japan to visit the maglev systems there” in 2007. The article reports that he “returned ‘positively bouncing with enthusiasm’, noting that even at full speed the train was quieter than a Virgin Voyager”.

Who was this shadow minister? Why, it was none other than the present holder of the Transport portfolio in the Conservative government, the Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP. I wonder if he remembers that now.

(To be concluded …)


  1. The claimed benefits of maglev have been extracted from sections 7.2 and 8 of Chapter 6 (Maglev) of Infrastructure Design, Signalling and Security in Railway, Dr Xavier Perpinya (Ed.), April 2012. The chapter’s authors are Yaghoubi H, Barazi N and Reza M.
  2. I posed the question of whether this line in Japan was an indication that HS2 would “be yesterday’s technology in 2026” in my blog Setting out my stall, part 2 (posted 30 Dec 2013).
  3. See the blog Professor Eric Laithwaite & the RTV31 Linear Motor Hover Train project in 1973, 1stNovember 2012.
  4. See pages 2 and 3 of the document Response to High Speed 2 Consultation, UK Ultraspeed, 28thJuly 2011.
  5. See page 4 of Response to High Speed 2 Consultation.
  6. The report is Kemp R and Smith R, Technical issues raised by the proposal to introduce a 500 km/h magnetically-levitated transport system in the UK, for the Department for Transport, June 2007.
  7. See the Executive Summary, on page 12, and paragraph 6.27 of the publication, Delivering a Sustainable Railway, Cm 7176, Department for Transport, July 2007.



3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by LesF on November 28, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Thankyou Peter for Part 21 in which you answer your query on my comment on Part 20 by citing the 2007 DfT report on Maglev in your footnotes. That report politely rubbishes Maglev for the UK. You only need to read the conclusions to get the picture.
    The lack of intermediate stations in HS2 is nothing to do with acceleration and braking; it’s because their two-track plan has insufficient capacity to serve all the communities along the route, resulting in a two-tier segregated railway.
    The assertion that Maglev can have tighter curves is absolutely wrong; the radius is limited by human response to the forces, not by any technical factors. The accepted limit of force due to vertical or horizontal curves is 0.1g. Above that you make your passengers feel sick. So the radius has to increase as the speed increases. This simple fact supports the case for a slower design speed than HS2’s 400km/h, faster than any rail service in the world and unlikely ever to be used because of the excessive energy consumption and rail wear. A slower speed means the route can match the landscape more closely, reducing the cost and destruction.
    The report also makes the point that existing railways go into the centres of cities where people want to go, while any other system would finish up with disconnected eccentric stations.
    I do think that enthusiasm for Maglev or any other high-tech system only serves to muddy the water just as HS2 is poised to start construction. The only viable alternative to HS2 is High Speed UK, designed by professional rail engineers to connect 7 times as many places at less cost and with less destruction. It would be political suicide for the government to say “HS2 is a mistake, we’ll scrap it”. What they can say is “HS2 has its problems but we’ve found a way to achieve everything it was supposed to deliver, and more, for less cost and with less destruction”. Win, win, win, win. If there is to be any hope of stopping the disastrous HS2 we must all get behind the viable alternative.


    • In my defence, I was careful to use the word “claimed” and the phrase “we are told” when I listed the advantages of maglev. What I should perhaps have made clear is that, whilst the authors of the chapter in the book Infrastructure Design, Signalling and Security in Railway are three Iranian academics, their views cannot be relied upon to be totally unbiased as at least one of them is a director of Iran Maglev Technology (IMT). I was also careful to balance my comments by acknowledging the report by Professors Kemp and Smith and the 2007 white paper and providing links to both.
      The problem for someone like me who tries to seek out “the truth” is it seems that just about everyone has an axe to grind, and I’m afraid that you also fit into that category Les in view of your promoting of HSUK.
      Despite the controversy that surrounds the benefits, or not, of maglev technology, I stand by my comment that it “must surely be seen as a serious alternative to wheel-on-rail technology for high speed trains”. Surely, the investment being made by the Japanese makes this conclusion indisputable.
      If all goes well in Japan, the Tokyo-Nagoya maglev train will be in service just about the same time as HS2 is running up to Crewe and work has started on the legs to Manchester and Leeds (assuming that the UK build is completed to schedule). If the Japanese line is seen to be a success, then where will this leave the UK? If we decide fifty years later, as we did with hsr, that the UK should exploit maglev, will we start again with yet another north-south railway?
      I don’t think that suggesting that maglev should have been given more consideration in the early days of the HS2 project is “muddy[ing] the water”. The government mind-set that allowed maglev to be dismissed in the somewhat cursory way that UK Ultraspeed complained about is precisely the same failing that has prevented HSUK from being fairly assessed, so I think that we are basically on the same side in condemning the blinkered view of the UK Government.


      • Posted by LesF on November 29, 2016 at 1:22 pm

        Yes Peter I absolutely agree we are on the same side in opposing HS2.
        I agree that Maglev may be a serious alternative to rail in some situations, but not in our crowded little island. Japan has twice the population of UK, a greater propensity to travel and its population distribution is more linear and much more dense. It has already made a success of HS rail and the proposed Maglev will duplicate a saturated HS railway. The minimum track radius will be 8km (5 miles) and most of it will be underground because it won’t fit the landscape. Fine if you don’t mind the cost and travelling hundreds of miles in tunnels.
        We are in a different situation. If we were to build HS2 in the Japanese fashion we’d have a lot more stations on the line. Instead we are threatened with a segregated railway by-passing more places than it serves and inevitably sucking commerce towards London, with more seats for those few places than will ever be needed while blighting the existing network. We will never need HS2 AND Maglev.
        The problem with introducing a new form of transport is the lack of connectivity; you have to change modes if the one you embark on doesn’t go where you want to go. That’s why we need an integrated network, not a patchwork quilt of incompatible bits.
        I’m not suggesting Maglev should have been given more or less consideration in the early days of the HS2 project, in fact the independent review of HS2 we crave should look impartially at all alternatives. My point was that construction of HS2 is due to start next year so it muddies the water to revive notions of a Maglev, making it easy for the government to dismiss the multiple alternatives. I admit that my support for HSUK is “an axe to grind” and I’m proud to do so as it’s the ONLY VIABLE ATERNATIVE I’VE SEEN. People wave their arms and say “I think it should go through XYZ” or that certain lines should be reopened without any technical appraisal of whether it’s worthwhile or even viable, while HSUK is worked out in some detail, costed and timetabled by professional rail engineers (something HS2 have consistently avoided, perhaps because it would be too embarrassing). Of course, the army of professional people beavering away on the HS2 design are just as diligent, but they’re doing as they’re told. The wrong decisions were taken early in the project by a few people and successive governments have been duped into supporting HS2.
        There is a plan for a second north-south HS line in the future to make up for the inadequacy of HS2, probably via Peterborough, but my view is that we need to get it right first time, and I believe HSUK does exactly that.
        The only way to stop HS2 at this late stage is to show the government how to do it better and cheaper. So I repeat my plea for you and others to support HSUK. You can see it at http://www.highspeeduk.com. Apologies for the name. As Lizzy Williams of Stop HS2 said, “It’s still all about speed”. I wanted to call it “The Campaign for Real Rail”. But we are up against a head of steam when HS2 can get away with saying “HS2 was never about speed”. High (what?) 2?

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