InTrans / Aug 24, 2016

Trains: Today

Go! Magazine

Cellphone train imageposted on August 24, 2016

When new technology provides a faster, better, or more efficient means of doing something, we adapt to new ways of life accordingly!

In the last 200 years, rail transport has changed dramatically. And just as rail transport has changed over the last 200 years, it could change just as much—or more so—in the next two centuries. In this article, we’ll take a look at some trains in operation today.

Need to know

In our last article, we talked about the history of trains and how steam engines were gradually phased out. But what happened next? How did that lead us to today?

By the mid-20th century, electric and diesel locomotives had almost completely replaced steam power. But why not steam-powered locomotives? Turns out, diesel engines cost less to maintain than steam engines.

As opposed to steam engines, which ran on coal and water, diesel engines run on diesel fuel to power an electric motor. In the United States, diesel locomotives appeared in service in the mid-1930s and took off in the 1950s.

Then there were electric trains, which were first developed in the late 1800s. Shortly after, by the 1930s, electric power took off as the “cleaner, quieter, faster and more reliable” option compared to steam or diesel engines.


That leaves us with our question: What’s available in the 21st century? First, we should note that electric trains are still widely used around the world today.

In fact, most high-speed passenger trains run on electric power like metro lines and subways do. Take, for example, the New York City Subway or the Rome Metro. Electric energy is also used to power “elevated” or overhead railways like the Chicago “L.”

A Pink Line “L” train passing through Chicago, Illinois
A Pink Line “L” train passing through Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Flickr user Fototak.

These trains get their power from an electric current, which runs an electric motor to propel the train forward. Electric trains collect power from an overhead cable or “live” rail that runs along the tracks.

Other commuter services rely on electric power, too, like the trams and trolley cars in Istanbul, the suspension railway in Wuppertal, Germany, the Klein Matterhorn cable car in Switzerland, and other services alike.

Something new: Maglev

So, if we’re always on the verge of new technology, what’s the next big thing?

In terms of speed, the maglev holds the top speed record for trains. Quite literally short for “magnetic levitation,” maglev uses magnetic suspension to both lift and propel the train forward without it ever touching the ground.

This new technology results in less friction, which allows these trains to travel at higher speeds. A maglev runs more smoothly and with less noise than its competitors and remains relatively unaffected by poor weather conditions. On top of that, the maglev travels at unthinkable speeds!

The fastest maglev train in operation is the Shanghai Maglev, also known as the Shanghai Transrapid, in China, which reaches a top speed of 270 miles per hour (mph).

Shanghai Maglev rests at the station
Shanghai Maglev rests at the station. Photo from Flickr user Tim Fisher.

Then there’s the SCMaglev in Japan, which hit record-breaking speeds of over 370 mph during test runs in 2015, but it is still in the works. Japan also has the Shinkansen, or “bullet train,” which is a network of high-speed rail lines with maximum speeds of 150 to 200 mph. Though it’s a more conventional high-speed rail, the Japanese bullet train has already been around for almost 5 decades.


So, if this technology is available, why aren’t more big cities adopting the trend?

Well, maglev systems are more expensive to construct, but the high cost is said to be balanced out over time with lower maintenance costs.

History tends to repeat itself, and in the past, rail transport has been a part of a series of memorable eras. If we can learn anything from what’s already unfolded, it’s that new technology is always right around the corner and is often more complex than we could ever imagine.

Look at it this way, in 1804, when the first steam-powered locomotive hit the rails, could its contributors possibly have imagined a magnetic train that literally didn’t touch the ground? Probably not! Imagine all the things we haven’t thought of yet.

Related links

More about maglevs:


By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer

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