Japan’s new maglev train will be the world’s fastest subway

A bullet train in Tokyo.
A bullet train in Tokyo.
Image: Reuters/Yuya Shin
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Japan is unveiling a train that travels even faster than a speeding bullet train. This week, the Central Japan Railway Company is having passengers test out a maglev train that reaches speeds of up to 500 kmh (about 311 mph). The train will run between Tokyo and the central city of Nagoya by 2027, cutting traveling time from 90 minutes to 40 minutes.

Japan’s famed bullet train network, known as the Shinkansen, heralded the country’s recovery from World War II as well as its emergence as an economic power. Now its use of maglev technology, which uses magnetism to propel trains forward with much less friction, is meant to herald a new age for Japan’s economy.

A traditional leader in the export of high speed rail technology, Japan faces stiff competition from its regional archrival China, which has been aggressively building high speed within the country as well as trying to sell it elsewhere. The world’s fastest passenger train is currently Shanghai’s maglev, which travels to and from Pudong International Airport at about 431 kmh.

It’s not clear that Japan’s new maglev line makes all that much economic sense. The plan is ultimately to create a high-speed mass transit maglev network across the country, but Japan’s population of commuters and potential passengers has been falling. By 2045, when the maglev train is scheduled to be extended to Osaka, the number of potential passengers is expected to have fallen by a third.

Moreover, maglev trains have to run on a track that is as straight and level as possible, which is difficult amid Japan’s mountainous terrain. That’s why the majority of the journey between Nagoya and Tokyo will be underground. As the Guardian observed in a retrospective on Japan’s high speed rail network earlier this year, “In other words, the maglev will essentially be a very long subway ride.” The train’s terminal in Tokyo is also being built 40m underground, adding to the capital’s already overcrowded train terminals.

Moreover, Japan’s maglev speeds may soon be overtaken by Chinese engineers. Researchers from a Chinese university have built a prototype for a “super maglev” that operates within a vacuum tube and travels as fast as 3,000 kmh, though that is technology that will likely be used for military or space launch systems, researchers said.