The ultra-high-speed train founded on British research – but found in Japan


Tuesday 21 April 2015 20:07

As we welcome the era of ultra-high-speed rail travel – after a Japanese magnetic levitation train broke its own world speed record by reaching 374mph on a test run near Mount Fuji – it is the moment to recall that the technology that made this amazing feat possible is, in fact, British in origin.

Indeed, it was largely the pioneering work of a very British engineer and inventor, Professor Eric Laithwaite. With his deep Lancashire brogue and gift for exposition, the Imperial College academic was a familiar sight on our television screens back in the 1970s, especially on series such as Tomorrow’s World.

In that pre-post-modernist time, there was optimism about almost everything and a belief that, as steam gave way to diesel and electric power on the railways, it was but a short, ingenuous hop on to the next stage: magnetic levitation. It was a magical, and extremely green, method of propulsion that would also help travellers to move from A to B in more civilised and strange surroundings than ever seemed possible in 1975. Like personal jet-propulsion kits and flying cars, this was the future.

Four decades later (and, admittedly, after some tragic accidents), this future seems to have arrived, like most things connected with rail, a little later than scheduled.

In Britain, enthusiasm and funding for Professor Braithwaite’s ground-breaking technology long since ran out. Like so much else, it has taken overseas engineers to turn invention into innovation.

Perhaps, on the journeys between Tokyo and Nagoya, passengers on Central Japan Railway’s maglev train will raise a cup of hot green tea to Professor Laithwaite.

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