Power without wheels

By Park Hyung-ki

Korean maglev to ply Incheon Airport route

  • Published : May 21, 2014 - 20:22
  • Updated : May 21, 2014 - 20:22
They float as if flying through the air. They can move faster and hardly make a sound compared to conventional trains with wheels.

Magnetic levitation trains can potentially emerge as South Korea’s next-generation rail transportation, offering a cleaner, quieter commute in metropolitan areas.

After 25 years of developing its own urban “maglev” train consisting of homemade components, the country is set to introduce the world’s second maglev that can go up to 110 kph on a 6.1 km track through Incheon International Airport in July. Japan launched the world’s first urban maglev in Nagoya in 2005.

Maglevs use the electric power of magnets to levitate 8 mm above iron rails and move forward, compared to conventional trains that use wheels and bearings to move on rails with electric grids above them for power.
South Korea’s maglev will run through Incheon Airport in July. (KIMM)

“Staying afloat and moving 8 mm above the rails is considered the core technology of maglevs,” Shin Byung-chun, director of the Center for Urban Maglev of the state-run Korea Institute of Machinery & Materials, which has been leading the project with Hyundai Rotem, a rolling stock producer.

Maglevs have a longer operational life cycle as parts such as wheels and bearings, which can wear down fast due to continuous friction during operation, do not need to be periodically replaced.

And given that there is no contact with the rails, maglevs can travel faster than bullet trains, and do not create pollution as they do not blow off dust or make noise.

Maglevs can be more cost-efficient as their operations and maintenance costs are only about 60 percent of those of wheel-on-rail trains.

There is also little risk of derailment since maglev bogies ― mechanical modules suspended from the trains ― wrap around the rails.

But there are some challenges for South Korea before it fully adopts the maglev system and exports it in competition with China and Japan, the only two economies with the technology.

The cost of building the maglev infrastructure is as high as that of making a system for wheel-on-rail trains.

Also, South Korea’s unmanned maglev, the Ecobee, consumes 20 percent more electric power than conventional railways.

Its engineers still need to figure out how to further reduce the magnetic sound as the Ecobee speeds up to 85 kph between stations, and O&M costs are likely to increase as safety measures are boosted.

It is noteworthy that South Korea has developed its proprietary maglev technology amid increasing limits to adding value to the current “saturated” rail market.

“Maglevs can be seen as a blue ocean as the global market for the new transportation has been untapped and not yet been fully explored,” said Hyundai Rotem CEO Han Kyu-hwan, who has been involved in Korea’s maglev R&D since 1989.

The country, which is in talks with Russia and Indonesia to export the technology, hopes to launch the era of maglev exports next year.

Its next mission is developing a high-speed maglev that can challenge China, which adopted German-based Siemens’ technology for its bullet maglev.

“Our next generation may likely see that happen,” said Kim Kuk-jin, head of Hyundai Rotem’s maglev R&D.

By Park Hyong-ki (

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