As you probably saw in the news today, a Maglev train—one that hovers slightly above a track using magnetic levitation—crashed this morning near Lathen, Germany. It was traveling at an estimated 120 mph, and killed at least 25 people. The train, owned by Transrapid International, a joint venture between technology giants Siemens AG and ThyssenKrupp AG, was traveling on a 20-mile test track that is mostly used for demonstrations of the technology to potential buyers—usually city governments from around the world. Rides are also frequently offered to tourists and company employees, the latter group appearing to be the bulk of today's victims.
The Maglev system—which uses alternating electromagnetic attraction and repulsion to move the wheel-less cars forward—is capable of traveling up to 310 mph, and there is only one fully operational system in the world, a high-speed shuttle that runs between Shanghai and that city's international airport 20 miles away.
Will today's accident jeopardize the growth of this innovative technology? Probably not, though other factors may do so. The crash appears to have been caused by human error— the Maglev hit a maintenance vehicle on the same track—as opposed to some technological failure relating to the magnetic levitation itself or to the speed of the train (many conventional train systems exceed that speed in daily service). But since transportation accidents almost always involve a string of failures, the investigation might reveal a problem unique to the Maglev system. Investigators will likely explore whether automated systems that may have operated the train or the maintenance vehicles were functioning properly, whether the elevated tracks were a factor in some of the deaths, and whether any efforts to slow down were impeded by the nature of the technology.
If the investigation turns up evidence that the system itself played a role in the accident, then today’s crash could indeed hamstring the development of the Maglev. But a few factors that are certainly jeopardizing the widespread deployment of the technology are its high cost (roughly five times that of conventional rail systems), the need for precision track construction, and the lack of interoperability between Maglev and rail systems. Stay tuned for more coverage as the investigation shakes out. —Eric Adams