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21 May 2015

Trains: The future on Rails

Estimated reading time Time 6 to read

603 kilometers an hour is the latest record of rail technology. It was achieved on April 21, 2015 by the Japanese experimental train “L Zero”, which operates by superconductor magnetic levitation (SCMaglev). This milestone summarizes a growing and global technological trend. In terms of speed, safety, efficiency and environmental impact, the train picks up speed to reinvent itself in the 21st century.

Levitation at top speed

The new Japanese bullet train will connect Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027 in about 40 minutes, reaching top speeds of 500 kilometers an hour. Meanwhile, the prototype has already broken the world record of rail speed, exceeding 600 kilometers an hour and maintaining that top speed for 11 seconds. And the key is precisely not to touch the rails. SCMaglev technology is based on electrodynamic suspension, a physical phenomenon that occurs when a repulsion magnetic field is created between two objects, which keeps them separated.

SCMaglev L0 Series Credits: JR Central

In the case of the bullet train this means that the passenger car levitates 10 centimeters above the rails; in other words, there is no friction between the train and the rails and, therefore, no loss of speed. To achieve this, the chassis has a series of superconducting magnets that create a magnetic field. The tracks have coils installed that interact with the magnetic field and generate their own induction field. Because of their layout, these coils have a twofold effect: on the one hand, they make the train levitate, and on the other they guide and stabilize its course. The train’s levitation occurs after 150 kilometers an hour and until then the train runs on rubber wheels.

The present is hybrid… Is the future electrical?

From time savings to fuel savings. At the end of this month, on May 30, a hybrid train will start traveling through the 20 stations that cover 47.2 kilometers of the Senseki-Tōhoku line (also in Japan), at a top speed of 100 kilometers an hour. The advantage over a conventional train fitted with diesel engines is that the emission of nitrogen oxides is reduced by 60% and fuel consumption by around 10%. It will be the fifth hybrid train of the Japanese company J-TREC that provides service in Japan. But it is the first inter-city train, thus extending to middle-distance trains a technology that had only been applied to suburban trains.

HB-E210 series Credits: J-TREC

The hybrid engines of these trains are similar to those of cars. The environmental and efficiency improvement is provided by two 15 kilowatt-hour lithium batteries per car. The batteries change their behavior depending on the train’s state. When stopped, they power the train’s auxiliary systems. During start-up, and using an inductor that transforms the batteries’ direct current into alternating current, the train is started with the diesel engines off; once the vehicle has started, the diesel engines begin to operate. The train’s braking is used to recharge the batteries.

Hybrid trains are a first step to achieve a lower environmental impact. But the future hope in the medium term is the all-electric train. This is the goal in the United Kingdom, which for the first time in 50 years conducted a test with passengers using an electric locomotive. Last January and February 2015, a prototype of the IPEMU (Independently Powered Electrical Multiple Units) project carried passengers as part of a plan for the British rail network to reduce its costs by 20%, while also curbing harmful emissions into the atmosphere.

The Green Alternative of Hydrogen

Replacing diesel (a fossil fuel) with hydrogen (a renewable and non-polluting resource) is the alternative proposed by hydrail technology. The goal is to use hydrogen to produce electricity to power the future trains and streetcars The two main strategies for achieving this are either to burn the hydrogen or to use it in a fuel cell.

Chinese hybrid prototype tram Credits: Qingdao Sifang Co

The main difference is that in the first case the hydrogen is burnt in a combustion engine (like gas engines), causing a certain degree of pollution. In the fuel cell, the hydrogen reacts chemically with the oxygen and in this case the only residues from the reaction are heat and water. This is why the vehicles using this technology (the FCEVs) are considered to be zero-emission, i.e. they are non-polluting.

The hydrail technology is starting to leave the test track. Aruba, a Caribbean island in the Netherlands Antilles, intends to become a pioneer this year with the implementation of the first regular service of hydrogen streetcars. Last April 7, Ballard —a company listed on the NASDAQ, the main technology exchange index— successfully demonstrated in China its hydrail technology applied for the first time in the world to mass passenger transport, one step beyond Aruba’s tourist streetcar.

Metropolitan revolutions

500,000 passengers a day is the figure that will be reached by the São Paulo monorail, which will become the longest and largest-capacity rail system in the world when construction is completed in 2016. 54 trains with seven passenger cars each (INNOVIA 300 model manufactured by Bombardier) will cover in 50 minutes the 27 kilometers of the new Line 15 of the São Paulo subway. They will be completely automated and driverless. The monorail passengers using the new line from end to end will save one hour and ten minutes compared with the time it would take them to travel the same distance by car (two hours).

Moreover, the savings with the monorail are also reflected in the rail infrastructure. The use of new materials (taken from aeronautics) allows for lighter systems, so the construction of lines is much cheaper, and they are 10% more energy-efficient than a traditional subway.

The São Paulo monorail is just one of the current projects that seek to take the technological revolution to metropolitan transport. London is about to invest nearly 3.5 billion euros in new vehicles for its Underground. Completely automated, with larger doors and a greater number of articulated cars per train, which will eliminate one of the most common risks in subways: the gap between the edge of the platform and the train door (as the famous Mind the gap” message reminds passengers in the London Underground) . The new trains designed by the company PriestmanGoode will use their greater mobility to get closer to the platform and eliminate this hazard. Larger doors, capacity for a larger number of passengers (between 25% and 60% more) and digital screens to update the information in real time will also be included.

Hyperloop, a “train” taken to the limit

The new project of the entrepreneur Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors) can hardly be called a train. He himself defined it as “a cross between the Concorde, a rail cannon and air hockey” when he unveiled his proposal for a new means of transport in 2013. But the scale of the idea can be much better explained in figures: to cover the 616 kilometers that separate San Francisco and Los Angeles in 30 minutes. In other words, to run at transonic speeds, those near supersonic speeds (the sound barrier is broken at 1,234.8 kilometers an hour).

Hyperloop concept diagrams. Credits: Hyperloop Technologies

The technological miracle would be possible by treating the train as a projectile, running along a quasi-empty tube. In the front of the vehicle, a gigantic fan would absorb the air to prevent it from reducing the speed and causing turbulence. The quasi-empty tube would help reach the high speeds, offering a thousandth of the atmospheric pressure at sea level. And for propulsion, the same philosophy as maglev: a repulsion electromagnetic field that would eliminate friction by making the train levitate.

The ambition of the hyperloop is to change the world economy. Crossing the Pacific in one night to carry goods from the United States to China. Distant cities simplified as points on an intercontinental subway line (still imaginary). The project’s pretensions contrast with the skepticism surrounding its technical and economic viability. But Elon Musk is serious with this new technological adventure that will kick off in California’s Quay Valley, since the company Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has secured the first commercial agreement for the construction of this dream. The first hyperloop will be a train traveling only 8 kilometers (it still hasn’t been decided whether in a circular or linear path) and at much more modest speeds, and will be the means of transport for the planned green city that will be built in the valley.

By Ángel Luis Sucasas for Ventana a Conocimiento

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