Maglev Trains

Magnetic Levitation (maglev) is an exciting new technology that could revolutionize high-speed mass transit, but it may be too soon to start a maglev system in the Seattle area.

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Mag Lev is short for Magnetic Levitation. It is a relatively new mode of transport that basically uses magnet fields to hold a train slightly above the guideway, so that it is actually floating in the air. This greatly reduces the friction and the train can travel at very high speeds.

The principle behind this magic is really very simple. If you have ever played around with magnets, and tried to push the south pole of one against the south pole of the other, or the north pole of one against the north pole of the other, you discovered that they tried to push each other apart. This is the scientific principle, that opposite poles of a magnet attract and like poles repel.

Basically, the idea in a maglev train is to somehow set up a magnet in the guideway (track) and one in the bottom of the train with like poles next to each other so that they push each other apart and lift the train slightly off of the guideway.

The principle is simple, but getting it to work is not. It take some really big magnets to lift a train, and to get the train moving and to keep it correctly positioned on the guideway, along with a lot of other technicalities, has kept many engineers, scientists, and companies busy for many years.

The concept of a maglev train is an exciting one. It could mean going from Seattle to Tacoma or Everett in fifteen minutes, or to Portland in around an hour. I think in the future we may very well have a backbone of high-speed maglev trains along the I-5 corridor and to the Eastside. However I don't think we are ready to start on a maglev system.

Despite the advantages a maglev system could provide, I think it is still too new and unproven to start building now, except possibly for a trial over a relatively short distance. I think it is probably still too expensive, and there is too much risk of unexpected problems once the system is in operation.

Furthermore, differenct engineers, institutions, and companies have come up with various different designs for maglev construction, and I think it is much too soon to determine which designs will work the best.

For now I think monorails are the best option for a high-speed backbone network, but that we should follow maglev technology and when there is greater assurance that maglev would be successful, then study the feasibility of constructing a maglev line in our region.

Because a successful maglev train will probably run at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour, I think maglev should be considered only for longer distances with several miles between stops. For example, a maglev line running north from Downtown Seattle might have stops at Northgate, Shoreline, Lynnwood, Everett, Marysville, Arlington, Mount Vernon, Bellingham, Richmond, and Downtown Vancouver, B.C. Even with maglev, monorail would still be better for intermediate distances.

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©2003 Robert M. Fleming Jr.

This page was last updated 8 September 2015.

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