Off the Rails: The Future of Japan's Bullet Train

Benoit DECOUT/REA/Redux

How magnetic levitation could make the bullet train go even faster—maybe up to 375 miles per hour

The train technology known as “maglev” has been a dream out of reach for five decades, working better in theory than in practice. The term is a portmanteau of magnetic and levitation, meaning just what you’d imagine from the childhood experience of trying to push the similarly charged ends of two magnets together. Now picture a whole train floating on that frictionless bed and pulled along a track by another powerful magnet. What you get is a train that goes astonishingly fast but, so far, not without copious noise, bumps, and a huge thirst for energy. There have been several experiments over the years, but the technology hasn’t been developed on a large scale.

That may soon change in Japan, where in a recent test a maglev L0 Series train topped out at a world-record 373 miles per hour, almost double the current top speed of the shinkansen, or bullet train. The government is placing a massive bet on maglev’s future, building a line from Tokyo to Nagoya that is scheduled to open in 2027 with compartments that, at least in renderings, look like suites at the Four Seasons. Experts are voicing some skepticism about the government’s ability to cover the estimated $50 billion construction cost, but similar concerns were raised about the exotic shinkansen more than half a century ago—concerns long since left behind.