Japan Is Building Floating Trains That Go 300 MPH. Why Aren't We?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 30 2012 1:06 PM

Why Can't We Have a 300-MPH Floating Train Like Japan?

Japan Maglev
Japan's Maglev train leaves the platform for a test run on an experimental track in Tsuru on May 11, 2010. US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood took a test ride on Japan's super-fast magnetic train that day, but President Obama's high-speed rail plans have largely fallen through since then.

Photo by Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

A Japanese railway company this month unveiled a prototype for a commercial passenger train that it says can reach speeds of 310 miles per hour via magnetic levitation. According to the Asahi Shimbun, the plan is for the floating train to begin zipping commuters from Tokyo to Nagoya in 2027. At that speed it could make the 200-mile trip in under 45 minutes, less than half the time it takes today on Japan's already-zippy bullet trains.

Maglev trains have long been the holy grail of ground transportation. Levitating above steel rails, Maglev trains need no wheels and have no friction with the track, resulting in an ultra-fast and ultra-quiet ride. So far they're also very expensive. Counting an additional planned Tokyo-to-Osaka leg, the project is expected to cost upwards of $100 billion.

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But if that sounds prohibitive, consider that the United States spends significantly more than that on highways in a single year. And while a highway might get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in six hours if you're lucky, a Maglev train like the one Japan's building could theoretically do it in an hour and 15 minutes. In fact, California has been trying to build a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail line for some 30 years, but the fight for funding has been tooth-and-nail. The state is now slated to have a 220-mph train up and running by 2028—but that's just a conventional bullet train, the kind Japan has had for decades. There were once plans for a California-Nevada maglev train, but they never left the station, and the money for planning them ended up being reallocated to a highway project.

Why are we so far behind Japan in transportation technology? The reasons are many, and perhaps the biggest is that the United States has been built around the automobile. Sprawling suburbs make mass transit really difficult. But it's been clear for years that our McMansion-and-SUV version of the American Dream isn't sustainable in the long term. And as our cities grow denser and our existing infrastructure ages, it's just silly that we aren't making more of an effort to replace it with something better and more futuristic.

The real obstacle today is a lack of political will to plan for the future, especially from the Republicans who torpedoed President Obama's high-speed rail plans in his first term. Those plans were far from perfect, but they would have been a great start. Come 2040, the United States is still going to be putting around on mid-20th-century infrastructure while countries like Japan, China, and Germany marvel at our backwardness.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.