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Magnetic levitation systems of transportation such as trains seem to be commonplace in early 2000's science fiction, and while some systems exist currently, they aren't exactly common.

It seems to me that this technology has grown unpopular (or at least has fallen into obscurity) in recent years and I'm curious as to why that may be.

Is it primarily technical factors or perhaps technology issues that prevent wider adoption of mag-lev transportation systems? Or is there something else that's slowed the rate of installation?

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    $\begingroup$ Invitations to speculation really aren't a good fit to objective Q&A. $\endgroup$ – 410 gone Feb 13 '15 at 6:53
  • $\begingroup$ Very broad question $\endgroup$ – Fred Feb 13 '15 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ The reason it hasn't taken off is because of the existing railway infrastructure $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Feb 13 '15 at 8:41
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    $\begingroup$ I closed this as 'too broad' because this is more of an invitation to a round-table discussion or debate than something that can be answered in this type of Q&A. Since Stack Exchange is purposely designed to avoid on-going discussions, this type of debate is better suited to a chat room or discussion forum. $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Feb 13 '15 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ I have edited this question in an attempt to make it more constructive. As fun as a close / re-open war between mods would be (just kidding), I'd like the community to weigh in with either re-open votes or flags indicating that the question should be re-opened. $\endgroup$ – user16 Feb 13 '15 at 22:59
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For a given method of transport to become the most popular, it needs to be the safest, cheapest, most efficient way to get from point A to point B, relative to comparable forms of transportation. In this case, the comparable transportation method is to use normal trains, which run on coal, electricity, etc.

Let's compare the two:

Safety

This is sort of hard to compare because the two methods involve different ways of killing people. There are the old "run-someone-over" and "hit-a-service-vehicle" scenarios, and in fact the only major (and fatal) accident on a maglev train occurred about eight and a half years ago. 23 people died when the train hit a service vehicle. However, the crash was attributed to human error, not the maglev technology.

Putting these types of accidents aside, maglev trains aren't any more dangerous that normal trains. People can die if they accidentally touch power lines, but normal electric trains pose the same risks. Fires aren't any more likely to be started, and fuel can't be spilled. So safety isn't an issue.

Cost

Here, there is a difference. In a Congressional report, Report to Congress: Costs and Benefits of Magnetic Levitation, it was estimated that maglev tracks would cost 40-100 million dollars per mile, compared to 10 million dollars for high-speed rail (HSR). The cost can vary given the area the train is passing through. The report estimates that a maglev system would cost 1.92 times as much as an HSR system in rural areas, 1.22 times as much in suburban areas, 1.20 times as much in mountainous areas, and 1.13 times as much in urban areas.

That's very interesting, because it shows that the technology might be accepted in some areas but not others. Maglev subway systems and elevated railways could become more prevalent in cities but not in rural areas. It wouldn't take too much of a change in infrastructure.

Different routes lead to different costs per mile, with the cost of routes in the American Northeast Corridor being one and a half times as much as average. Fortunately, thus setup is an outlier, and is really due to the high population in the region and the replacement of the existing rail lines.

Different methods range in price, too. The Congressional report also compares the programs of different countries. They vary quite a lot, though, and there doesn't seem to be a definite pattern.

One last thing: The report was written in 2005. Since then, the value of the dollar has changed and technology has improved. I think that the cost of maglev trains has gone down quite a lot since then.

Efficiency

This paper (admittedly short) compares a German Transrapid maglev train and the ICE 3 high-speed train, also developed in Germany. The energy usage is about the same, though at lower speeds Transrapid has the edge over ICE 3. There isn't data for higher speeds, though, which is odd, because the newest Transrapid models can go much faster than the data explains.

This article shows that maglev trains are still many times more efficient than airplanes or cars. It's also a bit speculative (using maglev as a launch system for spacecraft?!), but it's fairly comprehensive. But it's a bit dated, like the Congressional report.

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Like many things, the driver is an economic one.

Maglev is an entirely practical proposition but must compete in cost-benefit with other systems - notably wheeled ones. It generally fails to do so.

About 15+ years ago China investigated various means of providing high speed rail services. A "demonstration" Maglev system was constructed between Shanghai's Pudong airport and the edge of Shanghai proper. The 30 km line cost $1.2 billion to build. The train and track systems were a joint venture between Siemens and ThyssenKrupp and track and support facilities were built by Chinese companies. The train runs at around 350-400 kph typically (430 kph stated as daily peak velocity and in non-commercial tests a top speed of 501 kph was reached). The hope on the part of the suppliers was that this would serve as the first of a nationwide network of similar trains.

The system is the sole example of its kind in China and is considered something of a white elephant - it stops on the city edge and users must either catch taxies or public road trnsport or walk to a nearby local underground rail station to complete their journey into the city.

Instead of a national maglev network, the "conventional" wheeled D trains were introduced for long distance national services (200 + kph) and subsequently the even faster G trains - still wheeled and with top speeds in the 300-400 kph range. Even by D train a 4 hour road trip takes about 2 hours by train.

Despite possible popular images to the contrary, China is not averse to implementing 'high tech' systems if it seems to make sense to do so. The fast comfortable convenient D and G trains are good examples of this, but it seems the TUV Maglev was 'a train too far'. Definitely marvellous but not sufficiently superior to what can be achieved by more "usual" means at greater cost benefit.

Chinese train types

Wikipedia - The Shanghai Maglev - 上海磁浮示范运营线

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