In the novel Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart finds plans for an engine that runs off of the static electricity in the air. The plans are incomplete however so she begins a hunt looking for the engineer who created those plans. When published in 1957 by Ayn Rand, this concept was still foreign enough that the book was often placed in science fiction sections of bookstores.
We now have the technology to build an engine like this, however, it would be negatively affected. Negative efficiency means that there would be more energy used to capture or create energy.

I don’t personally agree with Ayn Rand’s message in this novel but I would still recommend people read it.
I digress…

Almost everyone is familiar with the magnetic train, or Maglev train. The idea is that with the use of magnets, the train floats above the track creating near friction-less travel. I say near friction-less because there is also air friction.
Currently, the fastest Maglev train is Japan’s JR Central Lo superconducting Maglev. The Lo train is a more advanced version of their more commonly known train known as the “Bullet Train.” On April 21st, 2015, in a controlled test, it reached a speed of 603 kilometers per hour or 375 miles per hour. This is an astonishing speed but its average operating speed would be much slower.

Because of magnetic lift, Maglev trains operate on much less energy than standard trains. The near friction-less travel also allows for higher speeds as well. But what other advancements could we see in the near future of trains?
First of all, let’s talk about what we could do to make the current Maglev train even better.

The average operating speeds of a Maglev train is somewhere around 150 miles per hour. Other than stopping for passengers and cargo, the major reason for this speed is turning. Currently, trains need to slow down to a safe speed before taking a turn. The current workaround this problem is to tilt the track so trains could take the turns at a higher speed. However, there would still be a “safe” speed that each train would either have to slow down or speed up too.

In Japan, the N700 maglev train is the first in the world to have its wheels built on a controlled suspension that allows the train itself to tilt rather than the track. This means that regardless of the speed of the train, it wouldn’t have to slow down to take a turn. The passengers inside wouldn’t even know that the train turned.

Another advancement being used by the N700 is it’s “regenerative breaking technology.” A lot of energy is lost when breaking, but this new system is able to collect some of that lost energy and store it in batteries for future use.
The Fast Tech 360 train also in Japan is taking a different approach to breaking. It uses retractable flaps like the flaps of an airplane to slow down.

Remember how Doc Brown turned a train into a time machine with wings? Yasuaki Kohama may be our modern Doc Brown, minus the time travel thing. Wing Ground Effect gives more lift when closer to the ground. Have you ever noticed how a piece of paper can float just above the table for a few moments? That’s the Wing Ground Effect. At Tohoku University, Yasuaki Hohama is developing the Aerotrain. The Aerotrain rides on a cushion of air under its wings in a half enclosed concrete track. Solar powered electrical propellers are all that is needed to get this train going and sustained while in motion. The Aerotrain is potentially capable of travel up to speeds of 280 miles per hour.

In 2013 Elon Musk proposed a new concept for a different type of train. His idea is called the Hyperloop. The idea behind the Hyperloop is all about air pressure. A pod or train car would sit inside a tube under partial vacuum. Air pressure would be lowered in front of the car and increased behind the car pushing it forward like a bullet out of the barrel of a gun. Because this bullet would never come out of its pressurized barrel, it wouldn’t suffer from air friction like an actual bullet. Musk has stated that he believes the Hyperloop could reach speeds of 800 miles per hour.

Robert Pulliam of Tubular Rail, Inc. believes that “the solution is not the train, it’s in the track.” Tubular Rail, Inc. is taking a different approach in an effort to dramatically reduce the cost of obtaining land rights and construction of its rails. Instead of using traditional rails, Tubular Rail wants to try elevated rings. Each ring would be supported by a pillar, which would take up less space and cost significantly less. To make the trains more efficient, they removed all motors from the train and put smaller ones in each ring. Each set of train cars would always be supported by at least three rings.

As a group, BNSF Railway uses the most diesel fuel with the exception of the US military during battle time. Recognizing this, they started a program partnering with Vehicle Projects to build a Hydrogen fueled train. They are currently working on creating a microbial electrolysis cell that would replace the current train engine. A microbial electrolysis cell has living bacteria that will be deprived of oxygen. Depriving the bacteria of oxygen causes the bacteria to create hydrogen as a byproduct. The hydrogen would then be burned the same way it would be in a hydrogen-fueled car. The byproduct of burning the hydrogen is water. If successful, a hydrogen fueled train would be able to move the same amount of product with less fuel burnt. Hydrogen has about twice the energy release than diesel fuel, and many many times more efficient than coal. This would decrease the cost to ship those products significantly, and be good for the environment at the same time.

The area that I think I am most interested in trains would be inner city use. Jim Fiske at Launch Point Technologies is developing an inner city system of trains that is actually more like a system of taxes. Launch Point has already developed prototypes of Maglev trains that are stable above the rails without having to be wrapped around the track like a traditional Maglev train. They are currently working on advancing the method train changes from one track to another on the fly. They are calling this concept Mag Net. To best understand what they are working towards, I probably should just give you a scenario. In this scenario, we live in a city that has implemented the Mag Net system. If we wanted to go to the grocery story, we would pull out our phone and request a Mag Net car. We wouldn’t have to go to a train station, but the train car would come to our house. The train car would be different sizes depending on our needs, so a small personal car would be ideal for this trip. It would glide up to our house riding the magnetic rails embedded in all of our streets. The train car wouldn’t need to be driven because it would simply follow the best route to the desired destination. When we got to the store, we would get out and the car would then head to another destination or back to a station where it could receive maintenance and wait for its next call. This system could either be funded through taxes or as a per use system. The initial cost of laying down the infrastructure would be a large pill to swallow, however, it would quickly become more efficient than everyone in a city owning a car. Also, imagine what this could mean if we needed to evacuate an entire metropolis? It would millions of people could be moved faster on less cost than people trying to leave by car.

Another idea that sounds really cool to me is AVT or Advanced Vehicle Transportation. This is a concept that I don’t think we will ever see put into place but is a great example of thinking outside the box. AVT combines the interstate with the train… let me explain. The AVT is a very large Maglev train that would run alongside an interstate or any well-traveled highway. Just before the interstate on ramp, there would be departure station. You would stop your car on a small conveyor belt that would move you, inside the car, sideways onto a Maglev shuttle. Once an AVT was close enough, your shuttle, as well as other shuttles waiting, would then follow an on ramp that would run parallel to the AVT. The conveyor belt would then load your car onto the AVT without the AVT slowing down. Once your car was on board the AVT, you could exit your car and enjoy the comforts of a high-speed train. Restrooms dining hall and sleeping areas would all be available.

The AVT’s would only stop when they needed maintenance. Food water and workers could be brought on board by the same method as the car we already described. The waist would also be removed in the same fashion. I travel to Montana twice a year, and this would make those trips more relaxing.

The last train concept I want to talk about is a concept that is straight out of a science fiction novel. The idea of a gravity train is something that has been around for more than a hundred years now. Imagine if we were able to drill a tunnel through the center of the earth to the other side. If we could do that, then we could drop a train and gravity would pull it towards the center of the earth. The train would pass the core traveling at speeds upwards of 18,000 miles per hour! Then gravity would work as a break and we would slow down and come to a stop on the other side of the planet. The whole trip would take just over forty-two minutes! A trip from New York to Sydney in only forty-two minutes? Theoretically, it is possible. But there are a couple major obstacles that we need to work around before a gravity train is possible. Fist of all, drilling into the core of the earth currently is impossible. The temperature of the core is roughly ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit. But let’s say we were able to drill that hole. We would then need to construct a friction-less tube for the gravity train to travel in. Notice I am not saying near friction-less. In order to stop in the same place every time, the tube would have to be friction-less. Once the tube was constructed we would then have to remove all air from inside it. It would have to be a complete vacuum so the train could reach the terminal velocity. However, turning that tube into a vacuum at the core is also currently impossible. The closer you get to the center of the earth the more gravity effects you, aka more pressure. The pressures that this tube would be under before the vacuum is extremely high. Now imagine removing the air from this tube.

Even though we will probably not be able to tunnel through the earth’s core, this concept shouldn’t be thrown away as useless. Would a gravity train work without going through the center of the earth, maybe from LA to New York? The short answer is yes. We would still have the nearly impossible task of drilling a tunnel to each of the destinations. And we would still need to create a friction-less tube that could withstand being under constant vacuum. But we wouldn’t have to deal with the extreme temperatures at the core and the pressures wouldn’t be as great. But the theory still works. Because gravity would be pulling at a shallower angle the train wouldn’t reach the speeds it would travel through the center of the earth. But the distance would be shorter to make up for that. Physics is strange and beautiful in how it works. Using a gravity train between New York and LA would also take just over forty-two minutes.

With the rise of fossil fuels and the growing congestion on the highways, it is likely that we will see many of these concepts become reality or at least versions of them. If trains became faster and more accessible would you ride them? Let me know what you think.

Nathan Little

Nathan is a Science Fiction and Fantasy author. He studied physics and chemistry in school. Father, husband and owned by a Pug.