Flying low but not slow

by George P. Taylor IX

The other day, I rode the train. The fastest train in the world. The Yamanashi Maglev Test Vehicle MLX01. I and a few friends have now flown at over 500 km/h, within merest inches of the ground.

It was a dreary Tokyo Thursday. Luckily, the Yama­nashi Maglev Test Center is located in Tsuru City of Yamanashi Prefecture, and out there the day was your gorgeously sunny, crisp fall day. The test site is a short taxi ride from Otsuki station, and provided an over­look of a highland valley with vibrant foliage.

Our group got an expert tour from Mr. Erimitsu “Erie” Suzuki, a friend from college days, and for the last 10 years, a researcher and engineer for the Maglev Systems Technology Division of the Railway Technical Research Institute, working on trains that literally float through the air. After a briefing by Mr. Noriyuki Shirakuni, head of the Yamanashi Maglev Test Center, and Mr. Katsuhiko Ichikawa, head of the International Department of JR Central, on the history and status of the Maglev research project (going since 1962!), and a number of questions from the group, we boarded MLX01.

MXL01 currently has three cars: the middle for passengers, and different “leading” cars on each end, one similar to a Shinkansen, and the other much more swept back. These different leading cars are used to test aerodynamic characteristics, with the goal of minimizing drag on the train. So we can go faster! The passenger cabin is accoutered similarly to a Shinkansen cabin, but is slightly narrower. In the cabin, I got seat 3D.

After pulling out onto the test track, we ran three lengths: from the Test Center toward Osaka, then back toward Tokyo, and finally back toward the Test Center. On the first leg we beat 300 km/h; on the second, the fastest, we accelerated to 500 km/h; and on the last, we topped 400 km/h, including an uphill curve with a radius of 8 km. When parked, and until it reached about 130 km/h, the train used landing gear with rubber wheels. When we reached about 130 km/h, the landing gear retracted, and was replaced only with electromagnetic forces. The engineers have done a fantastic job of making the ride comfortable. So comfortable that, from inside the cabin, it feels no “faster” than a Shinkansen, and is actually a smoother ride.

For a more visceral speed treat, on our return to the Test Center, we watched the next test run of the train, at a speed of about 500 km/h, as it flew through a run between two tunnels. The sound was your stock-standard fast-train whoosh, with a clear and distinct undertone of ‘razor slicing paper’.

The test site itself has a menagerie of specimens of the Maglev technology, diagrams explaining the technology, and models of the trains, the test track, and the currently planned route between Tokyo and Osaka. Once operational (ten years after the start of construction, which has not yet been approved) the trip will take about an hour. We asked how much ticket prices will be, and, although it is not yet decided, they expect to charge less than twice as much as a Shinkansen ticket. (I asked if I could buy one now).

For current information about visiting the center and about the lottery for rides (information available only in Japanese), see: