Tuesday, November 9, 1999 Published at 14:23 GMT
The magnetic attraction of trains
Germany's Transrapid - 450 kph (280 mph)
In the coming months, some hard decisions will have to be made about the future of magnetically-levitated trains. As the BBC's Hugh Sykes reports, billions of pounds have already been committed to Maglev projects in Japan and Germany, while in the UK much of the early promise ended in frustration.
The Maglev shuttle between Birmingham International Airport and the nearby railway terminal was abandoned in 1995 because it was unreliable.
Maglev is a magnetic levitation system for railways - it uses a combination of magnetic attraction and magnetic repulsion for lift and forward movement. A British scientist, Eric Laithwaite, first demonstrated its potential in the 1950s.
That, in very simple terms, is how a Maglev train moves along. And to see (approximately) how some Maglev trains 'fly', hold one magnet above the other with the poles still repelling.
The Birmingham Maglev airport shuttle flew along its 600-metre track at the impressive altitude of fifteen millimetres. It operated for nearly eleven years, but it was unreliable and was replaced by a bus.
Because Maglev 'flies', it couldn't have a conventional speedometer linked to wheels. It had radar instead. But radar hadn't been tried for slow speeds before, and in winter it didn't work properly because it reflected from falling snowflakes. It had to be re-aligned. More time and money.
There are, however, hopes of getting the project relaunched next year.
Meanwhile, billions of pounds have been spent on high-speed Maglev projects elsewhere. Berlin had a Maglev train that ran for a few years in the city and the technology may return on a line between Hamburg and Berlin. A German prototype has already reached 450 kph (281 mph).
A decision about commercial development of Maglev in Japan is due early in the New Year.
In Germany, the estimated £3 billion cost of the project may be its undoing; and the Green Party (which is part of Gerhard Schroeder's ruling coalition) say a Hamburg/Berlin link would damage wildlife with electromagnetic radiation, and that its concrete track-supports would spoil forests.
But Maglev has environmental advantages - there is no engine and no wheel contact, so there is insignificant noise pollution or vibration; there is no use of fuel so there is no air pollution (at least not from the vehicle), and because there are no steel wheels to slip on steel tracks, it can climb higher gradients than conventional trains.
The university's Maglev adaptation has been taken up by Nasa, who are testing it to launch spacecraft.
The plan is to levitate a 20-tonne spacecraft along a five-kilometre (three mile) track until it reaches 960 kph (600 mph), and then let the rocket engines take over to reach orbit.
If they succeed, it will save billions of dollars for satellite launches; Maglev would replace the first stage rocket, which accounts for two-thirds of the cost of every launch, and which is lost at separation every time.
So far, so good. On a 16-metre (50 ft) test-track at Huntsville, Alabama, a model spacecraft reached 96kph (60 mph) in less than half a second. A 60-metre (200 ft) track is now being constructed, with a target speed of 320 kph (200 mph) for the model. Watch this space.