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The Student's Guide to Transit Systems of the Future

The cars of the future may not be cars at all. They may be trains, if Canada’s and China’s competing systems take hold.

With increased urban automotive congestion, pollution issues and the ever increasing monetary and environmental costs associated with owning and operating cars in urban environments, urban planners are increasingly considering alternatives such as magnetic based train systems. The hope is to provide a robust alternative that not only makes an impact, but is also a viable way to confront future urban challenges.

This guide looks the difference between the leading and competing cutting edge magnetic technologies. We also look at why the are incompatible, and why only one can dominate.

The Magnovate

Canada’s Magnovate is the application of a proprietary magnetic levitation device. It uses a special configuration of magnets, called a “Halbach Array”, to help guide the train, keep it on a track, allow it to make fast switches between tracks, and move really, really fast.

How fast? When the track between Edmonton and Calgary is completed, it’s estimated that the trip, which traditionally takes 3 hours by car, will take just 45 minutes. The initial stretch of track is slated to cost $3.6 billion to lay, and it will run 300km (180 miles), for a grand total of $12 million per kilometer.

Passive Switching Central To Magnovate Operation

The Magnovate system uses passive switching so that the train itself doesn’t need to “hop tracks” or slow down to make “lane changes.” If an alternate track is available, the train can take the new track at or near full speed.

Point-to-point access means that the train system can link otherwise impractical stations together, providing access to major markets as well as minor ones. Once a mainline has been established, the network can be built out to smaller markets for intra and inter-market access.

The Magnovate passive switching model also allows for offline stops without slowing traffic on the mainline. A large levitation gap (the gap between the track and the bottom of the train), allows fast track switching without having to slow down for realignment with a new track. This eliminates the requirement for close-tolerance track alignment.

The two-inch vertical gap is orders of magnitude larger than all current existing systems. Engineers believe that this larger gap will help reduce future construction costs substantially and allow for the use of lighter substructure, and thus a lighter track and overall infrastructure.

Traditional systems make use of Electrodynamic, Electromagnetic, or Inductrack design; forcing a mechanical change in alignment when a new train runs or when a train must switch tracks. Precise track alignment must be made or the train cannot run on the track.

The Magnovate system eliminates this limitation completely. The Halbach Array allows for high speeds at all points in the track, and no mechanical change is required when switching tracks. New digitally controlled track and station systems feed real-time ticket information to the system, so that trains only stop at stations when ticket holders are waiting for a train.

This improves travel time and efficiency of the entire system since there is little or no wasted time during travel.

The system uses WAN, LAN, and demand-based packet switching, meaning that a Magnovate train system may use wide area networks (WAN) to connect two distant train stations together, while using local area networks (LAN) for the “last mile” intra-city travel.

Passengers can make purchases using mobile apps, and this information can then be fed to the system, where the train will arrive at a predetermined time at a “mobility hub” to pick up the passenger.

Even large numbers of people can be coordinated efficiently, taken long distances between major destination points (e.g. cities) and then taken intra-city for the last mile. Additional track can be easily added as demand grows for service in any area. This allows efficient and stable scaling of the system based on demand instead of preconceived central planning. Tracks are only built where they are needed, reducing and eliminating waste.

Because the system functions “on demand,” it can accommodate multiple vehicle types, not just traditional trains. A single track could be expanded for individual, as well as multi-car, vehicles and those vehicles could sync with the mainline train or remain independent as needed.

Special Considerations In Maglev Design

As with traditional Maglev vehicles, it’s a frictionless system. This means that the track and vehicle remain physically separated throughout travel. The design eliminates friction, and thus wear and tear on vehicles and the track. Weather is an insignificant factor in travel ability, since the system uses magnetic fields for operation.

How Magnovate Will Be Funded

The Magnovate system is expecting to be funded through Land Value Capture (LVC), which is a financing model that utilizes government grants, operating savings, and traditional business loans. The system would use property values as a means of raising funds in areas where the track is to be built. This money traditionally goes to developers and land-owners, but LVC would allow local communities to partake in the future valuation and use it for community projects that improve infrastructure.

China’s Bullet Train System

An already existing Maglev system in China hurries people from city to city, with the longest-running stretch of track being 2,298 km on the Beijing-Guangzhou High Speed Railway. This railway, sometimes referred to as the “Jingguangshengang High-Speed Railway,” connects Beijingxi Station in Beijing with Futian Station in Shenzhen.

The future of the track is multi-regional, meaning it will cross the border between China and Hong Kong, following the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link Hong Kong Section into West Kowloon Station, which is in Hong Kong. It will be the first and only Chinese high-speed railway that requires immigration and customs clearance.

Initial ridership started in 2007 at 237,000 people and has since grown to 2.49 million in 2014. It is the most heavily-used high-speed rail in the world.

The Maglev technology used in the Chinese system is of a more traditional Maglev technology. Rails are fitted with magnets and a low clearance is observed on all tracks. A mechanical change is required for track switching, and tracks allow for only one type of vehicle on the system.

However, high-speed tracks operate at a maximum of 300 km/h (186 mph). The speed limits aren’t due to train or railway limitations, however, but rather due to low ridership, a concern over safety in the track construction, and high ticket prices as well as energy usage for the system.

The technology of Maglev is well beyond that of traditional rail systems and the Chinese rail system has an important advantage over the Magnovate system - the Chinese system is already built, quite extensive, and can accommodate alterations in design. The Chinese government is also committed to its future buildout.

Since no new land needs to be sequestered for additional building, China’s Bullet Train System is already fairly scalable.

Where new buildout is being considered, there are either existing traditional train systems that will be replaced, or a government atmosphere that allows for easy sequestration of land for use by the government for a rail system.

China also wants to build thousands of miles of track that will cross over into Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia, and even Singapore. The project is referred to as a “Grand Trans-Asian Rail Accord.” In all, 20 Asian countries have signed on to be part of the system.

The Maglev system being considered for the extensive project uses permanent magnets to create both lift and propulsion, reducing friction, which allows for higher speeds compared to traditional rail. For example, the Shanghai Maglev Train was build with a top speed of 430 km/h in mind. It covers a distance of 30.5 kilometers in 8 minutes.

Some designs of Maglev’s propulsion use magnetic repulsion. That is, magnets lie on top of a guide way and are oriented to repel similar poles of magnets on the undercarriage of the train. This acts to push the train upward, allowing it to hover over the track.

Some tracks use electromagnets, but this design is inherently more expensive as it requires cooling to -269 degrees Celsius.

In other Maglev designs, magnetic attraction is used. In this design build, the bottom of the train wraps around the opposite poles of a series of magnets on the underside of a guide way. They are positioned to attract opposite poles of the magnets on the wrap-around section of the train. The magnetic force lifts the train off of the track, but only a few centimeters.

Visually, this would look like a C-shaped bracelet wrapped around your wrist, but without touching it. This is the basic design of the undercarriage of the attraction-type train. These types of trains may use electromagnetic systems to generate the power required to maintain the tight tolerances required for this type of magnet system.

Because of the low-friction environment in all of these Maglev systems, quick starts and stops are possible without serious interruption or negative traveller feedback. They’re also quieter than traditional rail systems.

While high-speed wheeled trains suffer from greater wear and tear, Maglev suffers little to no maintenance cost. This is offset, however, by its substantially higher initial construction cost.

It’s also an inherently expensive technology to replace and build out. Train cars must be made heavy, due to the magnet design, and addition of new track requires that specialized section of precision concrete rail and embedded magnetic materials are expensive to manufacture and transport to building sites.

Moreover, construction of the track requires great technical skill, as the track must be aligned near-perfectly. Levitation gaps must be moved mechanically and realigned, meaning the track is susceptible to earthquakes or other weather conditions that may affect the placement of track, like ground freezing.

Slow switch speeds limit build out, forcing the construction of single-line connecting stations. When additional lines are needed, they must be built alongside the original line, or a line must be shut down to add to it.

On-demand switching and stopping is generally not possible, since the current systems are not fully digital. New vehicle designs are also not possible, since the tracks must wrap around the train’s suspension or undercarriage or the undercarriage or suspension must wrap around the track.

This creates a pseudo connection with the track, while leaving no literal connection between the train and the track.

But, new designs promise even faster capabilities that may surpass even the best estimates of what is possible with the Magnovate system. Scientists at Southwest Jiaotong University in China believe they have discovered how to build a superior Maglev train system using traditional Maglev technology.

The system incorporates a vacuum tube into its design to minimize air friction. Specifically, the vacuum tube that encases the special train reduces the atmospheric pressure to less than 10 times the normal pressure at sea level. This design is believed to be able to achieve speeds of 2,900 km/h (1,800 mph). Dr. Deng Zigang, the project lead, claims it could be used for space launch systems or for military use.

The design follows in the footsteps of the conceptual Evacuated Tube Transport system, promising to eventually allow travelers to move from New York City To Beijing in 2 hours.

The “super-maglev” design could substantially improve travel times. However, the super-maglev is still essentially in a conceptual phase. The real-time speed results of the vacuum tube train are a mere 50 km/hr. The theoretical 1,800 mph is based on projected maximum speed of a full-sized system.

China isn’t the only one chasing a super/maglev design. The U.S. Terraspan and HyperLoop are two projects that hope to bring the concept to reality. Major stumbling blocks are building logistics and funding for ongoing testing.

Which Vehicle Is The Vehicle Of The Future?

Both systems utilize a proven technology, namely magnetic levitation. While both achieve it in two very different ways, both promise faster transportation at lower costs than what are currently possible with traditional systems.

Average annual vehicle miles travelled for drivers aged 16 and over is just 12,162. Some reasons for this may be periodic jumps in gasoline prices, an increased awareness of reducing environmental impact, a shift in the U.S. population from younger drivers to older individuals who aren’t as concerned with driving and don’t need to during retirement, and individuals born between 1983 and 2000 who prefer other forms of transportation to driving.

According to 2010 Census Bureau data, less than 3 out of 4 high school seniors had their driver’s license. The move to alternate forms of transportation, especially those with a focus on cost-sharing or carpooling, may kick off a revolution in transportation.

For now, money for research and initial build out, as well as the high initial build cost, remain the major disadvantages for both technologies. However, at this time, China’s stands ready and willing to continue funding its system.


Magnovate Homepage - Research and information about the Magnovate system.

How Maglev Trains Work - An in-depth explanation of how the Maglev train technology works.

Southwest Jiaotong University - Dr. Deng Zigang’s research project on super-maglev technology. - How maglev technology works.

Los Alamos national Laboratory - Magnetic Levitation Trains, design and engineering.

AMT - A technology company focused on commercialization of intellectual property in magnetics.

Maglev Patent Information