Magazine article Management Today

Japan's New Whizz Kids

Magazine article Management Today

Japan's New Whizz Kids

Article excerpt

There are two reasons why the Japanese have decided to develop |maglevs', a new type of super-express train which runs on magnets instead of wheels. Neither has anything to do with cost.

The first is national pride. For many, if not most Japanese, the shinkansen, the familiar blue-and-white bullet trains which whizz between major cities, have long been the epitome of Japan's technological prowess. Then, about five years ago, the French TGV came hurtling up from behind and supplanted the shinkansen as the fastest express train in the world. The maglev -- which will travel at speeds of up to 500 kph (310 mph), versus the TGV's 275 kph -- is designed to win the lead back for Japan. It is no accident that prototype maglevs are painted red and white, following the colours of the Japanese national flag.

The second reason for the development of the maglev is that railways are sorely in need of a new image. Over the next few years, the Japanese government is planning to privatise state-owned lines. It appears to hope that the maglev can confer a dash of high-tech glamour on trains that will impress potential investors.

This is why the maglev has been regularly hitting the headlines of Japanese newspapers recently. In January, transport minister Shintaro Ishihara took a ride on a 44-seat prototype train at its seven kilometre test track in Miyazaki, a region better known for livestock than high tech.

In April, the Japanese government doubled the maglev's research budget, to 3.3 million [pounds]. Included in this figure were funds to carry out a feasibility study intended to find a site for a new test track.

At the end of November, Ishihara persuaded other senior cabinet members to join him in seeking legislation to promote, as a national project, the construction of a 500-kilometre maglev line between Tokyo and Osaka. With an estimated cost of around 12.5 billion [pounds], this is the most ambitious of seven extant proposals to build maglev lines within Japan.

Yet before construction on any of the proposed lines can start, there are still several outstanding technological problems to be overcome. To put these problems in their context, first a few words about how maglevs work.

In the Japan Railways' version, trains run in a U-shaped track along the base of which copper coils are laid. As the train passes over the coils, its powerful on-board magnets induce a magnetic field of the same polarity in the coils, generating sufficient repulsive force to levitate the train.

At regular intervals along the sides of the U are electromagnets whose polarity is continuously switched, so that the ones immediately ahead of the train attract the on-board magnets, and the ones immediately behind repel them. (This arrangement is sometimes known as a linear motor.) The combined effect is to move the train forward.

The faster you switch the polarity of the electromagnets, the faster the train goes. Once it reaches a certain speed, the train retracts its wheels, just like an aircraft, and off it floats.

With no bogies below or pantographs above, maglevs are much lighter than conventional trains and generate far less friction. In 1979, an unmanned Japanese prototype set a record of 517 kph. In February 1987, a manned maglev managed to top the 400 kph mark.

Lighter trains could mean cheaper tracks. No wheels should also mean tracks that need less maintenance, one of a railway's biggest operating costs. …

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