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Japan Will Build Blazingly Fast Tokyo to Osaka Maglev Train Japan Will Build Blazingly Fast Tokyo to Osaka Maglev Train

Imagine making it from New York to D.C. in 45 minutes. That's how quickly Japan's maglev train will make it from Tokyo to Nagoya.

The route between Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan, stretches about 225 miles, the same distance that separates New York City from Boston and from Washington, D.C. For more than three decades, Japan has been considering building a train that would cut travel time between Tokyo and Nagoya to about 45 minutes. The line would use maglev technology, which channels magnetic force to levitate the train almost four inches above the track and propel it forward at speeds over 300 miles per hour.

But building a maglev train requires more money than most people can imagine: The cost for a route covering the 320 miles from Tokyo to Osaka has been pegged at 9 trillion yen or roughly $112 billion. Because of the cost, Japan has dithered over the project for years, until last month, when the government gave the Central Japan Railway permission to go ahead with it.

Imagine making it from New York to D.C. in 45 minutes instead of four hours, East Coasters. Imagine making it from Boston to D.C. in an hour and half, instead of nine. West Coasters, you could be flying from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in under an hour. Getting from Minneapolis to Chicago could take no more than an hour and twenty minutes. That’s what a train like the one Japan is building would mean in the United States.

Adopting this technology, though, requires long-term vision about transportation, which the United States has been lacking lately. Because the trains run on electricity, they’re already cleaner than fuel-burning trains, and as clean energy projects like solar and wind come online, maglev trains can pull power from those sources. But on top of the cost, building a maglev system takes time: The Tokyo-Nagoya branch of the Japanese train won’t be finished until 2027, sixteen years from now.

The system’s high cost comes in part from Central Japan Railway’s decision to make the route as straight as possible, sending it under mountains. (The trains will run through tunnels for 60 percent of the ride.) While high-speed trains like Amtrak’s Acela can run at slower speeds on tracks designed for traditional trains, maglevs require unique rail infrastructure, an expensive proposition.

Once they’re built, however, maglev tracks last longer. The trains we ride right now scrape metal wheels against metal rails, which wear down relatively quickly. The only friction between maglev trains and their track is air friction, easier on the metal tracks. The longevity of the infrastructure is an important selling point. To date, the cost of building maglev trains has outstripped any profits, and the trains will have to run efficiently for many years, with low overhead costs, to make financial sense.

In the United States, the most likely maglev train project is an L.A. to Las Vegas route, an idea that’s been floating around for two decades or so and has received a trickle of government funding. Its estimated total cost would come to $12 billion, a pittance compared to the Japanese project. At least one member of the administration, however, has been impressed by what maglev trains can do. Current Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, took a ride on Japan’s maglev test track last year. His reaction: “I have to say, those trains are fast. Very fast."

Photo courtesy of flickr user yui.kubo

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