Japan’s maglev train has broken its own world speed record twice in a week

Image: Getty.

Earlier today, a super-fast maglev train in Japan set a new record for train speeds. According to its operator, Central Japan Railways, it travelled at 602 km/h for almost a whole 11 seconds during a test run.

The seven-carriage train beat the 590 km/h record achieved just under a week ago by, er, the same train.

This, in turn, smashed the 2003 record (581 km/h) held by, yep, you guessed it. We’re not sure why the Japanese rail company is so competitive with itself, but it’s doing pretty well at the whole “moving really fast” thing. 

Two passengers watch as the train hits its fastest speed. Image: Getty.

So how did it manage it? "Maglev" is a portmanteau of "magnetic" and "levitation", which may give you some clue as to how the technology works. Opposing magnetic fields, operated by electricity, keep the train hovering ever-so-slightly above the track while movement in the fields propels it along. 

Given the minimal friction experienced by the train – it's only dragged back by air resistance, not by friction with the track – It's not surprising that Japan's model is the world's fastest train. Below, we've compared it to fast trains elsewhere, plus the very slow Stephenson's Rocket, the most famous of the early steam locomotives, which was chosen in 1829 as the engine which would power the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.

Click for a larger image.

Two out of the two three fastest shown here are maglev trains. In second place, however, is France's electric TGV (train de grande vitesse, or "train of great speed"). It has a top speed of 320 km/h on commercial trips, but a modified model hit 574 km/h under test conditions. HS2, the high-speed rail network planned for Britain, would regularly travel at 400 km/h, making it 25 per cent faster than France's high-speed network. 

Unfortunately for time-strapped Tokyo commuters, the planned maglev line between Tokyo and the central Japanese city of Nagoya, which should halve journey times, won't be in operation until at least 2027. It also won't travel at record-beating speeds, instead opting for a relatively stately 500 km/h.

Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport at the UK's Institution of Mechanical Engineers, released a statement following the maglev's latest test run arguing that British rail should be embarassed by the advances made in other countries:

Even though it is for Maglev rather than a conventional train, this world speed record is a hugely exciting milestone and shows the potential for high speed train travel. Considering that the UK developed the first railways, it now shows just how far behind we are falling

She also pointed out, however, that maglev technology's "high costs" and "incompatibility with conventional rail infrastructure" makes it inapprorpriate for use in Britain. The Tokyo-Nagoya line alone will cost at least $48bn to build, partly as many sections will run through specially built tunnels. Japan's trains may be faster, but they're also a hell of a lot more expensive. 


Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”

In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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