High speed trains
When English inventor Richard Trevithick introduced the steam locomotive on 21 February 1804 in Wales, it achieved a speed of 8 km/h (5 mph). In 1815, Englishman George Stephenson built the world’s first workable steam locomotive, commissioned by the Killingworth colliery. In 1825, he introduced the first passenger train, which steamed along at 25 km/h (16 mph). Today, trains can fly down the tracks at 500 km/h (311 mph). And fly they do, not touching the tracks.
Need for rail speed: Rail travel at 500 km/h (311 mph)
The need for rail speed escalated when Japan introduced the shinkansen Bullet Train on 1 October 1964 to mark Asia’s first Olympic Games, held in Tokyo. The Bullet Train proved that there is not only fascination, but also a market for fast trains.
In the early 70s, the French built the TGV (Train Grande Vitesse). The TGV is the French version of high speed trains. There are many others: more than 350, in fact. The German ICE3, built by Siemens, reaches 330 km/h (206 mph). The Eurostar comfortably hurls 700 passengers along at 300 km/h (188 mph), with its two motors pushing out 12,200 kW. Siemens and French Alstrom teamed up for the Spanish Talgo, which will shrink distances at 350 km/h (218 mph). In Australia, the Speedrail TGV will run the Sydney-Canberra line at up to 360 km/h (225mph) in 2004. In the US, the Acela will fly down the tracks at 320 km/h (200 mph). Even China is planning a new high speed rail to quickly cover the 1,280 km (800 miles) between Beijing and Shanghai. High speed trains also run in Britain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Taiwan and South Korea. But perhaps Japan is best known for its superfast trains, holding the speed at 552 km/h (345 mph).
To achieve amazing speeds, the magnificent powertrains called for new developments in track design. TGV tracks, welded rails on hybrid steel and concrete ties, lay on a thick bed of ballast. The combination of curve radii and superelevation makes high speed possible: a 5 km (3 mile) radius would be considered tight. Instead of each car with its own wheels, they are semi-permanently attached on a two-axle truck between them.
The Maglev is a system in which the train runs levitated from the tracks by using electromagnetic forces between superconducting magnets on board the vehicle and coils on the ground. When the magnets pass at high speed, an electric current is induced within the coils, which then act as electromagnets temporarily. As a result, there are forces which push the superconducting magnet upwards and ones which pull them upwards simultaneously, thereby levitating the Maglev. The repulsive force and the attractive force induced between the magnets propel the Maglev forward at great speed.
The Maglev actually does not touch the tracks when traveling. Its superconductors let the trains float above the rails. The Siemens-Alstrom train levitate 1cm (0,39 in) above the track. Japan’s shinkansen runs 10 cm (3,9 in) above the tracks. The shinkansen uses wheels to reach 100 km/h (62 mph) before it levitates. At speed, supercold liquefied helium minimized energy loss in the magnetic field. The European model uses regular magnets, but enables immediate flight.
Maglev research started in 1962, and by 1970 studies of electrodynamic levitation systems using superconducting magnets took shape. The first test run took place in 1979. In December 1986, a 3-car train registered 352.4 km/h (220 mph). In December 1997, a manned MLX01 attained 531 km/h (331 mph), and unmanned, attained 550 km/h (344 mph). The following year, a test of two trains passing each other at a relative speed of 966 km/h was run successfully. In March 1999, an unmanned five-car MLX01 reached 548 km/h (342 mph). In April, the manned five-car MLX01 set a fabulously fast world speed record at 552 km/h (345 mph).
How does it stop?
TGVs have dynamic brakes, with brake shoes for emergency stops. Trailers are equipped with four disks per axle, and backup brake shoes. Magnetic induction track brakes are planned for the next models. Maglevs are slowed down in the same way it is propelled, by superconducting magnets.
High speed lines are completely fenced off, and the tracks maintained in top condition. Although there have been derailments, in the almost two decades of daily operation, there has been no casualties.
At high speed, it is impossible to read lineside signals. All signaling information is transmitted to the train through the rails directly to onboard monitors in the cab. Most of the high speed train functions are controlled digitally, true to being the vehicle of the digital age.
The high speed Shinkansen E2 that runs from Nagano to Tokyo
Photo copyright DAJ Fossett
Down the track
In 1815, George Stephenson’s steam locomotive ran on tracks 1,42m (4ft 8in) wide between rails. Later he added 1,3cm (half inch) to the width of the track. It was to become the standard gauge (1,44m or 4ft 8 1/2 in).
In December 1830, the Best Friend of Charleston, hauled a train of cars on the tracks of the South Carolina Railroad, introducing the railroad to America. The first American-built locomotive was the Tom Thumb, constructed by Peter Cooper.
In 1888, Frank J. Sprague completed the first electric street railway. It ran 19km (12 miles) in Richmond, Virginia. However, the first electric locomotives were introduced only in 1895.
Diesel trains first ran in 1925. The world’s fastest diesel train is the Russian TEP80, at 273 km/h (147 mph).
The French TGV 001, powered by a gas turbine, reached a top speed of 318 km/h (198 mph) on 8 December 1972.
The TGV Atlantique reached 515 km/h (321,8 mph) on 18 May 1990. In 2006 it clocked 581 km/h ((363 mph).
In April 1999, a 5-car Japanese Maglev set a world record of 552 km/h (345 mph).
The term locomotive is used only when the power unit can be uncoupled from the cars.