Japanese Magnetic Train Reaches Record Speed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After a magnetically levitating train in Japan set a world record speed of 550 kilometers per hour, the Chinese and Germans followed up with trains that continued to break speed records.

Summary of Event

Trains that are propelled by electromagnetic force are called maglev trains (for magnetic levitation). With no wheels and no engine, these trains “float” on a magnetic field and can travel at astonishing rates of speed. As early as 1941, German engineers had devised the first patent for a train run by magnetic levitation. Maglev trains Train travel Magnetic levitation trains [kw]Japanese Magnetic Train Reaches Record Speed (Dec. 24, 1997) [kw]Magnetic Train Reaches Record Speed, Japanese (Dec. 24, 1997) [kw]Train Reaches Record Speed, Japanese Magnetic (Dec. 24, 1997) [kw]Record Speed, Japanese Magnetic Train Reaches (Dec. 24, 1997) Maglev trains Train travel Magnetic levitation trains [g]East Asia;Dec. 24, 1997: Japanese Magnetic Train Reaches Record Speed[09850] [g]Japan;Dec. 24, 1997: Japanese Magnetic Train Reaches Record Speed[09850] [c]Engineering;Dec. 24, 1997: Japanese Magnetic Train Reaches Record Speed[09850] [c]Transportation;Dec. 24, 1997: Japanese Magnetic Train Reaches Record Speed[09850] [c]Science and technology;Dec. 24, 1997: Japanese Magnetic Train Reaches Record Speed[09850]

On December 24, 1997, a land speed record was broken by a Japanese magnetic train that clocked 550 kilometers per hour (342 miles per hour) on an experimental track. The three-car train was unmanned, but an earlier sprint on December 12 achieved a record speed of 531 kilometers per hour (330 miles per hour) with passengers. The experimental track—the Yamanashi Maglev Test Line—became famous. The developers included Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) and the Railway Technical Research Institute, whose scientists had been studying the technology at Yamanashi with intensity since 1962 and rapidly applied the idea to operational passenger lines. The project was nationally funded.

Maglev trains are usually propelled by a linear induction motor. Whereas normal trains are propelled by an engine, maglev trains are moved forward by the track itself, pulled, section by section, by the track’s changing magnetic fields. The trains hover only 10 millimeters (about 0.4 inch) above the track. A significant advantage of maglev trains, aside from their astounding speed (even uphill), is that they are not in contact with a rail and thus do not generate friction. Regular trains touch the tracks, which causes wear on the trains’ moving parts. Maglev trains, in contrast, do not require maintenance for such wear. One downside of maglev trains, however, is that they can run only on very costly magnetic tracks; because of this expense, there are few such trains in the world. Compared with regular trains, maglevs take more money to build but less money to maintain. They also start up very quickly: Shanghai’s maglev train smoothly achieves 350 kilometers per hour (220 miles per hour) in two minutes. Passengers say the ride is very comfortable; it is also quiet, owing to specially designed windows.

Luggage on a maglev train is stowed in racks above the seats and between cabins. The Shanghai train can carry almost a thousand people at once and has nine compartments. Maglev trains meant to carry cargo can have all-cargo sections or can mix cargo with passenger sections. The trains are not slowed by their length or the weight of their load.

Because of wind resistance, maglev trains use as much energy as regular trains. Although they emit less air pollution directly, the energy to run them must still be created at another location that then incurs the pollution. Nevertheless, a maglev train consumes 25 percent of the energy that an aircraft would need for the same speed and capacity. In fact, the train’s levitation uses less energy than its air conditioning. Further, while traveling, the train’s batteries recharge themselves.

These unique trains rely on the track to get them to their destinations. Each train has superconducting magnets, and the sides of the track have coils. The track develops an electromagnetic propelling force. A substation provides an alternating current to the coils, thereby shifting the track’s magnetic field. The train pulls forward when its magnets are attracted by the changing magnetic field. The coils repel the magnets on the train, and the train is pulled forward. The train stops by using aerodynamic brake panels. The Chinese experimented with making the trains more efficient by using high-temperature superconducting magnets, cooled by inexpensive liquid nitrogen. The Japanese maglev trains used low-temperature superconductors.

The JR-Maglev train in Yamanashi, Japan, that clocked 550 kilometers per hour on December 24, 1997.


In developing a maglev train, there are a number of engineering issues to resolve. For instance, researchers must take into account the sharpest curve and the steepest hill on the route. They must consider how much space to put between the tracks, so that maglev trains can charge past each other without affecting each other. In addition, there are concerns over building and maintenance costs as well as noise-control features.

The building of the guideway for the Shanghai maglev train, which began in 2001, took on the discipline of a military project. Despite the tons of steel required and the intricate calculations and fittings, the project was finished in just over one and a half years. The Germans built the train, and the Chinese built the track. However, the two countries hoped to transfer the train technology to China, forging a bond between the two countries.


A maglev train is a symbol that a country has “arrived” as a major technological contender in the world. Although the Shanghai train was initially unprofitable, it was a strong statement of China’s wish to be a modern leader, and it demonstrated the manufacturing ingenuity of the Germans.

In the 1970’s, the Japanese studied levitation, testing maglev vehicles in 1972 and 1975. By the late 1970’s, inverted guideway and tunnel tests began at an early track called the Miyazaki Maglev Test Track in Miyazaki Prefecture. A U-shaped guideway was tested there in 1980, and later a two-car maglev was tested with passengers. By the end of that decade, the Japanese had experimented with substation crossovers, inverters, braking systems, and a traverser turnout. They ran three-car trains, and, in 1987, a manned two-car train reached a speed just over 400 kilometers per hour (about 250 miles per hour). In 1990, the Japanese began building the Yamanashi track, culminating in the record-breaking ride in 1997. Efforts evolved to focus on testing for maximum speeds.

In the fall of 2003 in China, Shanghai’s maglev train, made in Germany, reached a top speed of 501 kilometers per hour (311 miles per hour), taking travelers from downtown to the airport—a distance of 30 kilometers (19 miles)—in about seven minutes. When the train made its debut, reporters referred to its first trip as a “flight,” as if it were comparable to a supersonic jet plane. Japanese maglev trains, which are run remotely, have run as fast as 581 kilometers per hour (361 miles per hour)—a record speed set in 2003. Millions of Japanese each year travel between cities on these trains. Maglev trains Train travel Magnetic levitation trains

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brennan, Richard P. Levitating Trains and Kamikaze Genes. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 1994. Explores future technology, from medical to weapons to engineering.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hood, Christopher. Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan. New York: Routledge, 2006. Although the Japanese shinkansen (bullet train) is not a maglev, it is a high-speed train. Hood shows why the Japanese are attached to their fast trains.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lynch, Thomas, ed. High Speed Rail in the U.S. New York: Gordon & Breach, 1998. Shows the process of linking high-speed rail to other means of transportation and investigates whether high-speed rail in the United States is feasible.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strohl, Mitchell P. Europe’s High Speed Trains. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993. Examination of Europe’s train systems in the context of geography and economics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vranich, Joseph. Derailed: What Went Wrong and What to Do About America’s Passenger Trains. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Discussion of ways to improve the U.S. rail system by a former Amtrak official.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Supertrains: Solutions to American’s Transportation Gridlock. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Makes the case for high-speed trains such as maglevs in the United States.

Concorde Flies Passengers at Supersonic Speeds

Opening of the Channel Tunnel

Opening of the World’s Largest Suspension Bridge

Categories: History