Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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631 words

When leaving for lunch today I saw that there were flags at half-mast in front of the department. So I wondered what was going on. After lunch I checked the online news and learned that there was a bad crash at the test facility of the German maglev train Transrapid and more than twenty people were killed in the accident.

It seems that the flying train crashed into a repair train. Which probably just shouldn’t have been there to begin with – but was. We’ll see what the blame shifting comes up with when trying to figure out what caused this to happen. And you already can hear people starting to raise their voices how this is a dangerous train and all – while in principle just by the way its technology works, it’s rather safe. The fact that the trains are being centrally controlled and don’t have a driver aboard will for sure cause further uproar, conveniently ignoring that at high speeds there’s no way to stop the train for something in the way that’s close enough for you to see it.

All in all this just looks like a doomed project. Apparently the government started pouring public money into big-business to research this from the late 1960s and by the mid 1980s they started having what must have been a working prototype. I still remember how I thought this train was fantastic when I was little. I mean it’s flying, it’s going faster than 400km/h and it looked cool. And when they started building high-speed trains in Germany back then, I thought it was disappointing that they went for the traditional rail bound ICE train in Germany.

Of course the ICE train has advantages as well. Most notably it can run (slowly - topping out at 160km/h or so) on existing rail tracks and thus could use the existing infrastructure. But in a way that’s just crap because you have a high speed train to travel quickly and to do that they had to build new and better tracks with loads of tunnels and bridges. Tunnels and bridges because the high-speed trains aren’t good at going uphill when running at high speeds (a problem you don’t really have with the maglev technology), so it took quite a bit of time and even more money just to have a reasonable network. And even on that the trains top out between 250 and 300km/h.

The maglev trains, in comparison, easily go faster than 400km/h and have much better acceleration (meaning that stopping somewhere costs less time, making it more feasible to stop). Ah well, I would have loved seeing them here. And luckily we once went to have a look at their test track with our physics class at school – including a little explanation about the magnetic goodness and other technical achievements and a test ride… going up to 420km/h if I recall correctly and riding at quite a steep angle (so you could see the cows on the ground five metres below you) while going around the curves at high speeds. That was great, and not only did it feel oh-so-futuristic but it also seemed to be a bit smoother than the rail-bound trains (although the newest generation of the ICE trains is very smooth as well) and surprisingly quiet when standing close to a train going by at a high speed.

I guess I liked it back then. And every now and again plans come up for building a track for real. Connecting Berlin to Hamburg (hasn’t happened, there’s a fast rail connection now), connecting Munich to its new airport (being discussed), and so on. But the only ‘real’ use of that train is that of an airport shuttle in Shanghai… quite far away.

Look at the test track:

September 23, 2006, 0:38

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