by Ric Getter
Just imagine sitting in a train, watching the scenery fly by at 500 kilometers per hour (km/h) with a ride so smooth it feels like a cushion of air! Yasuaki Kohama of the Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan has come up with a new design for a train that just might revolutionize how we travel by rail. A recent article in the journal New Scientist reports on how Kohama's "Aerotrain" will work.
Even though the engines have come a long way from the early days of steam, trains still use some sort of motor to power the wheels along the rails. Some of the new ones can go pretty fast. Japan's latest Bullet Train, called the Nozomi, has a top speed of 300 km/h. Engineers in Japan are also working on a new kind of train that uses super-conducting magnets instead of wheels and rails. They call this system "magnetic levitation" or "maglev" for short.
Maglev trains promise to be very fast and smooth, but they will use a tremendous amount of electricity. Kohama's train uses a principle that is much simpler and will be much more efficient, as well. It's called the "wing in ground" (WIG) effect. It's easy to see how this works yourself.
The Aerotrain will use a cushion of air to ride on and keep it centered on the "track." Propellers will push the train up to 500 km/h. (Graphic courtesy New Scientist)
The rail cars ride on L-shaped wings. The bottom part of the wing provides the lift to support the train. It will float 5-10 centimeters above the ground. The WIG-effect from the side wings keeps the train centered on a "track" that uses walls instead of rails. "Steering the Aerotrain is virtually automatic," said Kohama. The train is pushed forward by propellers that are attached to the cars. The wheels on the train will be more like an airplane's landing gear. They will only be needed when the train is near a station.
Right now, Kohama is using a model to test the design of the Aerotrain. Instead of using propellers, it is being pushed along by a truck. The train has to reach about 50 km/h before it lifts off. But the researchers hope to improve on that as their design improves. If all goes well, the Aerotrain will be able to carry 335 passengers at 500 km/h by the year 2020.
Want to find out more about some really fast trains?