On April 21st, Japan's new, state-of-the-art L0 Series maglev bullet train obliterated its own week-old record for world's fastest manned train, hitting a mind-blowing 375 mph. It's no secret bullet trains* are incredibly badass, but did you know they go so fast they make a sound loosely similar to a sonic boom? Or that some of the most advanced trains use cryogenic cooling to make things more efficient? These are 15 things you never knew about bullet trains.
* "Bullet train" refers to the high-speed trains on the Shinkansen lines in Japan. However, most people also consider several other high-speed rail lines to be bullet trains, so the focus here will be more than strictly Japanese.
1. The original bullet train is the Japanese 0 Series Shinkansen
The nickname originated when the concept was first proposed in the 1930s, and when the high-speed train started operating in 1964 (shown above) it kind of resembled a bullet, so the name stuck. The fact that it could do 130 mph didn’t hurt, either.
2. The fastest commercially-operated bullet train is in China
Japan may be the most famous for its speeding trains, but the Shanghai Maglev Train routinely hits 268 mph with passengers on board.
3. The fastest non-maglev bullet train is French
In 2007, a SNCF TGV (the French high-speed rail) hit 357.2 mph to officially become the fastest train that still uses wheels. Translated, that’s around 100 mph faster than a Veyron.
4. The French mail service is no slouch either
TGV La Poste trains can hit up to 168 mph, making them the fastest freight trains used anywhere in the world.
5. Bullet trains are arguably the safest way to travel in the world
Over 10 billion passengers have ridden on Japan’s high-speed rails alone, and none of them have ever died in a crash. Worldwide, there have only ever been a handful of fatal crashes.
6. When a train exits a tunnel at speeds approaching 200 mph, it sounds like a sonic boom
A large shockwave builds up in the tunnel, and upon exit, the so-called tunnel boom is so loud the Japanese government has had to install tunnel extensions (shown here) to help quiet things down. Listen for yourself.
7. The tunnel boom effect is powerful enough to blow a freight train over
Seriously. In Japan, there are speed limits in tunnels if there’s even a chance of a freight train passing by, specifically because of a concern that it could get knocked off the rails.
8. Most bullet trains today aren’t maglevs
Maglevs are much more energy-efficient at high speeds and therefore capable of much higher standard operating speeds. Despite the flashy tech however, the majority of bullet trains are actually much more closely related to normal trains, albeit on exceptionally smooth tracks.
9. However, Japan is preparing a huge network of bullet maglevs
This is the future of bullet trains. The aforementioned 375 mph achieved by the L0 Series (shown) is the fastest speed recorded by a train. 310 mph is its routine cruising speed. Japan plans to have a full network of these bad boys up and running by 2027.
10. Maglevs are significantly smoother and quieter than other trains
This is the “suspension” of the L0 Series. Notice how it has no hard links, so there’s no way for harshness and vibration to enter the cabin. No tracks means significantly less noise at speed and less complaints from people who live near the lines—likely why Maglevs so attractive to the government.
11. To test everything out on the next-gen train, Japan built a nearly 12 mile-long test track
The coolest part? Local residents are occasionally allowed to ride it for free. It just doesn't really go anywhere, though.
12. They employ one of the most powerful magnets on Earth
That shouldn't be a surprise, since its job is to lift a freaking train. Technically, maglevs use superconductors (yeah, as in superconducting super colliders—same type of magnet), and they’re more powerful than almost all electromagnets.
13. They require cryogenic cooling to operate
When the coil’s temperature gets below a certain temperature, electric resistance is drastically reduced and the magnetic field gets much, much stronger. So you wind up with a bunch of these huge refrigerators trying to keep everything as cold as possible. Shown here is an old unit that now serves as the air conditioning unit for the entire U.S. Mission building in Geneva.
14. Some maglevs are pushed up, others are pulled
It’s actually easier to have each car’s magnet wrap around the side, allowing magnets in the track to literally pull the train up from underneath. That said, via modern technology, a constant fluctuation in the magnetic fields keeps everything perfectly stable in systems that simply push upwards.
15. They can all trace their roots to 1934 Germany
The concept of magnetic levitation dates back to the early 1900s, but Hermann Kemper concluded 12 years of research with a patent for a “monorail with wheelless vehicles that are on iron rails by magnetic field-guided floating.” The rest is history.