High speed on a floating magnet: Tim Jackson has an exciting ride on Germany's hi-tech train. But, he says, this is far more than mere entertainment

AS you board Germany's new Transrapid train, it is hard to avoid the tremor of childish excitement that usually comes with a fairground ride. First, you climb up a metal staircase and walk across a ramp. Beneath your feet, workers in identical starched uniforms are making final checks on the machinery. Then an entrance to a carriage opens automatically and you enter. Once the passengers are aboard, the front of the cavernous hangar opens soundlessly and the sleek shape glides on to the guideway, headlights blazing forth into a dull winter afternoon.

Inside, the carpet running down the aisles is implausibly clean and the seats are unusually wide. They are firmly sprung, more BMW than Jaguar. For 15 or 20 minutes the two-carriage prototype floats around its 31km (19 miles) of track at Lathen, in the Emsland region of western Germany. From a standing start, it accelerates to 382kph (238mph) in less than three minutes - just quickly enough to push you gently back into your seat. Then, seemingly as soon as it began, the ride has ended. Baroque Muzak wafts over the loudspeakers, and the passengers troop obediently off.

The nearest experience I had had to this was a Star Wars ride at Tokyo Disneyland; except there you could join the queue again if you wanted. But this is far from mere entertainment. In five or six years, it could be carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers across Germany at average speeds well above 200mph. According to its developers, a government- sponsored consortium of Germany's most respected heavy engineering companies, the Transrapid could revolutionise the economics that have made short-hop air travel more attractive than trains.

The basic technology inside the Transrapid, a linear motor, has been a scientific dream for most of this century. In 1909, an American called Robert Goddard, who later invented the liquid-fuelled rocket, designed an electric motor that used the standard method of magnetic repulsion and attraction familiar from rotary motors. But there was an important difference. Instead of stringing magnets around to form a cylinder, Goddard stretched them out flat, so that switching on an electric current would produce horizontal motion along a straight line. With magnetic repulsion used to keep an object suspended in mid-air above the track, the linear motor could in theory provide the basis of a railway technology in which the trains never came into contact with the track.

Goddard was not the only one who worked on the idea, however. In 1922, a German engineer, Hermann Kemper, started researching a variant of the idea, in which the train was to be held aloft not by magnetic repulsion from below, but by attraction from above. For years he worked tirelessly at his model, and won a patent for it 15 years later. But the 'magnetically levitated' (maglev) train never became one of the pet projects of the Third Reich. While Adolf Hitler pumped resources into the V-1 and V-2 rockets, and built the autobahns, his regime never took Kemper's ideas seriously.

A great deal of work has been done since. A few short, low-speed maglev railways are already in operation, but it has proved much harder to deliver enough power to move a full-size train at high speed and in reasonable safety. Scientists in Japan have been working on a maglev train that uses superconductivity - the property of certain substances that have almost no electrical resistance at very low temperatures - to provide a powerful magnetic charge aboard a train with only a dribble of electricity.

Room-temperature superconductors, however, remain a Holy Grail; today's have to be kept far below freezing with cumbersome and dangerous refrigerators. Japan's experimental maglev train recently suffered a disastrous fire and crash while undergoing tests at its experimental track.

The German scientists have been working since the early Seventies to make the Transrapid a reality. Their seventh, and latest, model contains a key technical difference from earlier trains. Rather than suspending the train above the track by magnetic repulsion from magnets underneath, it uses Kemper's idea, lifting the train off the track by attraction from magnets above. The new model contains a mechanism that switches off the electric current about 100,000 times a second, in order to prevent the train clamping hard on to the attracting magnets (which would stop it dead in its tracks). This means the train no longer needs to float so high.

With a gap between train and track of only about 1cm, compared with the 10cm used in many earlier maglev trains, much less power is needed to keep it aloft. And to keep the train's weight down, it is the track, rather than the cars, that carry the bulk of the electric current.

The result of all these differences is that the train performs dramatically better than either existing maglev train technology or other experimental systems. It is likely to be able to cruise at well over 400km an hour (250mph) under practical conditions. At such speeds, it can match air travel between two city centres 1,000km (625 miles) apart. More important, the Transrapid performs more like a sports car than a train. It can reach its cruising speed in only a sixth of the distance of existing high-speed trains. That makes it economical for the train to make frequent stops, unlike conventional high- speed trains.

The Transrapid can also climb and turn easily. While France's best TGV (train a grand vitesse) models can manage a gradient of only 3.5 per cent, and the tightest circle that Germany's trains can turn has a radius of 7km, the new train can easily mount a 10 per cent gradient and turn a 1.6km-radius circle. That reduces dramatically the amount of tunnelling and embanking that must be done and allows rail planners to choose curvier but cheaper routes. Finally, the planners say that a double-track line requires less land than conventional railway lines or roads.

These factors combine to make it possible for the train's tracks to be built at about half the cost of traditional high- speed electric train tracks. The technology does have its drawbacks, however. First, the short distance that the train floats above its track means that tremendous accuracy is required in the engineering of both train and track. On the experimental Transrapid track at Lathen, one section of track can never vary by more than 0.6mm sideways or 0.3mm up and down from the next.

So far, there seem to have been no problems in the maintenance of the 31km experimental loop of track. But maintaining thousands of kilometres of track that will have to carry electric power and stay in place to within a fraction of a millimetre for decades to come is an entirely different matter.

Although Green Party politicians complain that the train is too noisy, I found it quite tolerable when I stood less than 100m from the track as it passed at high speed.

The current model of the Transrapid has been hopefully named Europa, reflecting the ambition of its makers to have it accepted as the core of a new trans-European network of super-high-speed trains, capable of carrying vast numbers of passengers as traffic grows in the 21st century. The Bundestag is due to decide later this year on a line between Hamburg and Berlin that will cost DM8.5bn ( pounds 3.5bn).

But there is a one large problem facing the spread of maglev trains. Crumbling though they are, the railway tracks that already exist elsewhere in Western Europe have been built over a period of more than a century. Their cost has been almost entirely paid off. It is likely to be cheaper to make better use of existing capacity, running more and better trains on today's tracks, before building new ones.

This is an example of a disappointing truth: just because a technology is good and efficient, does not mean that it makes sense to use it.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little