A Polish deep-tech firm wants to make high-speed trains accessible to railway operators across the world by deploying maglev technology on conventional track. Some railway experts are sceptical.
When the great thinkers of the past imagined the cities of tomorrow, their vision would often include futuristic, high-speed railways crisscrossing the skies, with trains almost levitating in thin air, magically propelled forwards by some unseen force.
Few sketches and artist impressions of life on earth in the next century (or, indeed, life on other planets) failed to include futuristic trains as central, focal points, so crucial were they to conveying the idea of progress.
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So when the Central Japan Railway Company ran its first successful test of a magnetic levitation (maglev) train in 1972, many of those architects of the future would have no doubt felt vindicated. Here, quite literally, was a train that did indeed travel at previously unimaginable speeds while levitating in the air, propelled by an unseen force.
The future was now.
Since then, however, the adoption of maglev technology has been patchy. Just three countries currently deploy maglev trains: China, Japan, and South Korea.
The primary challenge is cost. Maglev trains require dedicated infrastructure including substations and power supplies which cannot be integrated directly into an existing transportation system. Track also needs to be kept as straight and level as possible in order to maintain high speeds, necessitating the construction of costly tunnels and viaducts.
Safety concerns have also been an issue. In 2006, 23 people were killed in northern Germany when a maglev train crashed into a maintenance wagon on a test run. It was subsequently revealed that human error was responsible for the crash.
The missing link?
Now, however, a Polish start-up believes that it can make maglev great again. Its technology, dubbed MagRail, allows maglev trains to be deployed on existing, conventional tracks—albeit with some modifications. By modifying the current rail network instead of building an entirely new one, the cost and complexity of implementing maglev could be significantly reduced.
“It is the missing link between existing railway infrastructure and brand-new digital railway systems,” says Przemek Paczek, co-founder and CEO of the firm, Nevomo, which says that both traditional trains and magnetically levitating vehicles can use the same railroad track.
The firm recently carried out levitation tests on existing rail infrastructure, the results of which were made public at an event in Brussels on September 5.
MagRail says that its tests confirmed that railway vehicles can operate on existing railway infrastructure without any friction. During trials on a more than 720-metre-long section of Nevomo test track in Nowa Sarzyna, Poland, MagRail vehicles reached a speed of 135 km/h demonstrating stable levitation and magnetic guidance on rail infrastructure.
A six-metre-long vehicle weighing two tonnes began levitating at just over 70 km/h, and it went from zero to 100 km/h in 11 seconds. Nevomo says that ultimately, high-speed passenger MagRail trains are expected to run up to 550 km/h on railway lines, significantly reducing travel times.
Can it work?
While the ability to run maglev trains on adapted conventional tracks provides a more realistic path forward, there are still challenges to overcome. Ensuring compatibility between different train types, addressing potential speed limitations due to track conditions, and establishing safety standards are just a few potential pitfalls.
Some railways experts are sceptical.
“I don’t doubt their technology can work in a test environment, but where it falls down is integration with the existing rail network,” says Jon Worth, an independent consultant and railway campaigner.
“The network we have is old and congested. How would they mix their trains with regular trains? Also—as with any of these sorts of tech—there’s the question as to whether it can convey enough people. So it’ll work in engineering terms, but as I see it I don’t know how the integration with the traditional railway can work.”
Paczek nevertheless believes he is on to something.
“For the first time in railway history, a rail vehicle moved not on the existing tracks, but over them, without friction. It shows that our MagRail technology is not just a vision for the future; it is a tangible solution for today,” he says. “It is a solution for a greener, more connected Europe. By leveraging existing infrastructure, we offer a cost-effective and environmentally friendly approach to modernising rail transport, in line with the European Green Deal’s objectives.”
The construction of Europe’s longest passive magnetic levitation test track, on which Nevomo conducted its tests, was co-financed by the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund under the Intelligent Development Programme. The project is being implemented as part of the Fast Track programme of Poland’s National Centre for Research and Development.
To date, for the development of the MagRail technology and its testing, Nevomo has raised 11 million euros of funding (comprising 5.5 million euros equity and 5.5 million euros non-dilutive EU grants).
Additionally, last year the company was awarded 17.5 million euros from the European Commission. Funds are also being raised for a pre-Series A round of seven million euros. Key investors include EIT InnoEnergy and Hütter Private Equity.
Nevomo says that it will continue the research and the development of MagRail not only for levitation, but also for further exploration of different applications of the technology to improve efficiency and capacity for rail transportation and finally to start commercialising the first version of MagRail for freight transport in 2024.
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