Shanghai’s Maglev Train: Astonishingly Fast

Maglev vehicles are undeniably cool. I’d assumed that Gizmodo would already have a writeup of Shanghai’s expensive but slightly pointless Maglev airport train, but I was wrong. So while I was in Shanghai last week, I took a little train trip. The train line that connects Shanghai’s airport to its outer suburbs runs for a distance of 30km, which isn’t terribly far for a train line. It only services two stations; the Longyang Road station within Shanghai and the Shanghai Pudong International Airport. So far, not so impressive per se; after all, there’s plenty of airport train lines dotted around the world. What makes the Shanghai train that little bit more impressive is that it’s a Maglev train line, more technically known as the rather unwieldy “Shanghai Magnetic Levitation Demonstration Operation Line”.

One oddity I discovered while doing my research; while the technology for Maglev might seem like it’s quite cutting edge stuff, the first US patent relating to this kind of vehicle was granted back in 1907. It’s been a long time coming. For those who like their trains fast and their broadband faster, the Shanghai Maglev has also been used by Huawei to demonstrate TDD LTE broadband.

Want a Maglev train of your very own? You’ll need a lazy $1.3 billion or so to make it happen. Shanghai’s isn’t the only one in operation; Japan has one (and may develop more), as does South Korea, but Shanghai’s is the fastest with a shattering top speed of 431kph. I’ve never previously been on a ground vehicle travelling that fast. Well, OK, as it’s levitating it’s not technically a ground vehicle. Indeed, if it did come into contact with the ground, very bad things would happen.

I purchased the ‘economic’ 50 yuan ticket. It’s slightly cheaper if you provide evidence of a ticket, but I was in a hurry for various reasons and didn’t have a physical printout of my plane ticket on me.

The train’s not all that full. From what I can gather this is a regular thing; at 50 yuan (about $7.50) for a one way ticket, it’s well beyond the salary of the average Chinese national, although with China’s rising prosperity, clearly not every Chinese national. The fact that it doesn’t go anywhere you’d need to visit on a daily basis probably doesn’t help either.

So what’s it like riding in something that hits the same top speed as a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport?

The world’s fastest train. This is as slow as it gets.

The world’s fastest train. It doesn’t take all that long to hit this kind of speed either.

The actual sensation of riding in a train that can hit 431kph is… strange. Strange in that at the same time that my brain’s trying to work out if I’d be crushed or simply liquefied if we did crash, I’m also standing up taking shaky pictures and video footage, and not at all concerned by that. In most respects, it simply feels like taking any other kind of train journey, which is to say a little dull. The whole journey from go to woah to slow only takes seven minutes, so the sensation of speed doesn’t have a lot of time to register in your brain. It does feel odd when we pass another train with a distinct boom of air, and I did notice that going at only 250kph felt ‘slow’ after hitting 431kph, but that's about all.

The Maglev’s clearly a tourist impressing device. Here we see an ex-Gizmodo editor giving it the hearty thumbs-up.

At the other end, I stopped to take some photos of the carriage and the front of the train. It’s only then that I notice that the front end of the train has a number of solid brown stains on it. I guess if I were a bird and saw those red eyes coming at me at 431kph, I’d soil myself too.