The rise and fall of Transrapid: The maglev train that could have revolutionized transportation

Developed in Germany between the 1970s and 2010s, Transrapid, a maglev train system, was an ambitious and highly promising technology.
Christopher McFadden
Transrapid was an ambitious project, but why did it fail in Europe?

Állatka/Wikimedia Commons 

  • The Transrapid, a groundbreaking high-speed maglev train system developed in Germany, demonstrated the potential of magnetic levitation technology to revolutionize transportation.
  • Exported to China and Australia, ultimately, it would never be realized in its native Germany or wider Europe.
  • Despite this, the Transrapid remains an important milestone in the evolution of high-speed travel.

If you've never heard of Transrapid, we'll dig into the history, technology, and challenges surrounding this highly ambitious yet ultimately doomed maglev train technology. Hold tight as we go through an adrenaline-filled, high-speed overview of this incredible but ultimately ill-fated Transrapid.

What was Transrapid, and why the name?

Transrapid was a German high-speed monorail train system that used magnetic levitation (maglev) technology for propulsion and levitation. The name "Transrapid" was derived, rather unimaginatively, from the combination of the words "transport" and "rapid," highlighting the fast and efficient transportation that the system aimed to provide.

The rise and fall of Transrapid: The maglev train that could have revolutionized transportation
Transrapid SMT in Shanghai.

Using strong electromagnets, Transrapid's maglev technology allowed the train to levitate above the tracks, reducing friction and enabling the train to travel at very high speeds—eventually reaching speeds in excess of 300 mph (500 kph) in some cases. The development of the first prototypes for the Transrapid system began in 1969, and by 1987, a testing facility had been established in Emsland, Germany. In 1988 there were plans to build nationwide maglev tracks in Germany, starting with the Hamburg – Hanover route. In 1991, Deutsche Bundesbahn, in collaboration with prominent universities, declared the system technically ready for application.

In 2002, the first commercial use of the system was realized with the Shanghai Maglev Train, which links Shanghai's rapid transit network over a distance of about 18 miles (30.5 km) to the Shanghai Pudong International Airport. However, no long-distance intercity lines had not adopted the Transrapid system at that time. Transrapid International, a joint venture between Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, is responsible for the system's development and marketing.

However, in Germany, in 2011, the Emsland test track (Transrapid's first iteration) was shut down when its operating permit expired. The demolition and repurposing of the entire Emsland site, including the factory, were authorized in early 2012. In September 2017, there were proposals to utilize the last Transrapid, the 09 iteration, as a conference and museum space at the Fleischwarenfabrik Kemper site.

How different was Transrapid from other levitating trains?

As impressive as Transrapid is/was, it is not the only levitating train technology to be developed worldwide. Other prime examples include Japan's Superconducting Maglev (SCMaglev or Chuo Shinkansen) and France's Aérotrain.

Transrapid and SCMaglev both use magnetic levitation technology but employ different levitation and propulsion methods. Transrapid used electromagnetic suspension (EMS), in which electromagnets attached to the train's sides are attracted to the ferromagnetic stator rails in the guideway. The gap between the train and the guideway is maintained at around 0.4 inches (10 millimeters), and a linear motor provides propulsion.

Japan's SCMaglev, on the other hand, uses electrodynamic suspension (EDS). In this system, superconducting magnets on the train induce currents in the guideway's conductive coils, creating a repulsive magnetic force that lifts the train about 4 inches (100 millimeters) above the guideway. The SCMaglev uses a linear synchronous motor (LSM) system for propulsion. While the Transrapid and SCMaglev can both achieve high speeds, the SCMaglev has demonstrated a higher top speed. Transrapid's maximum speed was around 310 mph (500 kph), while the SCMaglev reached 375 mph (603 kph) during testing.

The Aérotrain was a French experimental hovertrain system developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike the Transrapid and Chuo Shinkansen, which rely on magnetic levitation, the Aérotrain uses air cushion technology for levitation. Air was forced underneath the vehicle, lifting it above a T-shaped or inverted U-shaped guideway. A turbine or a linear induction motor propelled the Aérotrain.

Although the Aérotrain achieved impressive speeds during its testing phase, the project was eventually abandoned in favor of the conventional high-speed Train à Grande Vitesse, TGV for short, mainly due to economic and technical reasons.

The rise and fall of Transrapid: The maglev train that could have revolutionized transportation
Image of the Transrapid 05.

How did Transrapid work?

Transrapid, like other maglev trains, utilized unique technology that allowed the train to hover above the tracks, thereby eliminating friction and achieving high speeds.

Maglev trains were made possible by technologies developed at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The first magnetically levitated train design patent was granted to James Powell and Gordon Danby of Brookhaven in the late 1960s (although German patents were granted in the late 1930s). According to, while stuck in traffic one day, Powell thought there must be a more efficient way to move on land than using a car or a regular train. He came up with the notion of levitating a train car using superconducting magnets. Superconducting magnets are electromagnets that, while in operation, are cooled to extremely low temperatures, greatly enhancing the strength of the magnetic field.

Levitation was achieved in the Transrapid system using powerful electromagnets on both the train and the guideway (the track). When electric current flowed through the magnets, they produced a magnetic field, which caused the train to lift and hover above the guideway, maintaining a gap of around 0.4 inches (10 millimeters).

As for propulsion, the Transrapid utilized a linear motor, which is a type of electric motor that generates linear motion instead of the rotational motion produced by traditional electric motors. The linear motor's stator, or stationary part, was installed along the guideway, while the rotor, or moving part, was attached to the train. When electric current was applied to the stator, it created a traveling magnetic field that interacted with the magnets on the train, pushing or pulling it along the guideway. This allowed the train to achieve high speeds with smooth acceleration and deceleration.

The Transrapid system also employed a sophisticated control system to ensure safety and efficiency. Sensors monitored the train's position, speed, and other variables in real-time, adjusting the power supplied to the electromagnets and the linear motor as needed. This allowed the train to maintain a constant gap between it and the guideway, ensuring a smooth and stable ride and controlling the train's acceleration, deceleration, and cruising speed.

Why did the Transrapid fail?

In a sense, it didn't, as it was exported successfully to China and Australia. But, in Germany and Europe, it never really made it. Despite the technology's clear advantages, Transrapid faced several challenges that contributed to its limited success and eventual decline.

One of them was its high construction costs, which played a significant role in the failure of the Transrapid system. The development and construction of Transrapid infrastructure were expensive, mainly due to the unique requirements of maglev technology, such as the need for dedicated guideways and sophisticated control systems. These high costs made it difficult to secure funding for new projects, both domestically and internationally. But, more on that later.

Political and bureaucratic hurdles were another factor that impeded the success of the Transrapid. In Germany, the project faced opposition from various interest groups, environmental concerns, and issues related to land acquisition. Delays and difficulties in decision-making processes further hampered the implementation of the system.

The rise and fall of Transrapid: The maglev train that could have revolutionized transportation
Transrapid 06 in Deutsches Museum Bonn.

Competition from conventional high-speed rail systems, such as the German ICE and French TGV, also impacted the adoption of the Transrapid. These alternatives offered comparable speed and efficiency, often at lower construction and maintenance costs, making them more attractive options for governments and investors.

Noise and vibration concerns raised by residents living near the proposed routes added to the challenges faced by the Transrapid. Although maglev technology reduces the noise generated by wheel-on-rail contact, it still produces noise from aerodynamic effects at high speeds. These issues fueled public opposition to the project in some instances.

Another nail in the Transrapid's coffin was a tragic accident in 2006. It is not normally possible for two maglevs to collide. This is because two trains on the same guideway segment will be forced to go in the same direction at the same speed. However,

On September 22, 2006, a Transrapid train on the test track in Lathen, Germany, crashed into a maintenance vehicle on the track. The emergency braking slowed the train from 450 km/h (279.6 mph) to a speed of 162 km/h (100 mph). However, there were 34 people on board, and those speeds were not slow enough.

The impact destroyed the front section of the train, causing the maintenance vehicle to lift off the track, perform two complete rotations, and land in a heap of pre-damaged debris.

This incident marked the first significant accident involving a Transrapid train. News outlets reported 23 fatalities and several severe injuries, the first recorded deaths on any maglev train. The accident resulted from human error, as the train had been permitted to depart the station before the maintenance vehicle had cleared the track. An automatic collision avoidance system could prevent such situations in a production environment.

In another incident, on August 11, 2006, a Transrapid train operating on the Shanghai Maglev Line experienced a fire. Shanghai's firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze. Reports suggested that the train's onboard batteries may have been the cause of the fire.

Lastly, the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 and the subsequent economic slowdown made securing funding for new projects even more challenging for the Transrapid. Governments and investors became more cautious about investing in costly infrastructure projects during this period, diminishing the prospects for Transrapid's expansion.

Ultimately the failure of Transrapid in Europe can be attributed to a combination of high construction costs, political and bureaucratic challenges, competition from conventional high-speed rail systems, noise and vibration concerns, and the impact of the global financial crisis. These factors ultimately limited the adoption and expansion of the Transrapid system, leading to its decline.

How much did Transrapid cost?

The cost of implementing the Transrapid maglev system varied depending on the project, as factors like route length, terrain, and infrastructure requirements influenced construction costs. However, the cost per kilometer for building a Transrapid system was typically higher than that of conventional high-speed rail systems. However, we have a few examples of the implemented system to give us a rough estimate.

For instance, the Shanghai Maglev Train, the only commercial implementation of the Transrapid system, had a total construction cost of approximately $1.33 billion (€1.2 billion). This 18.95-mile (30.5 km) line translated to a cost of about $43.6 million (€39.3 million) per kilometer. It is important to note that these figures are specific to the Shanghai project and might not be representative of other potential Transrapid projects, as costs can vary significantly based on local factors.

The rise and fall of Transrapid: The maglev train that could have revolutionized transportation
Transrapid 07 on display at Munich Airport.

Transrapid Australia gave the Victoria State Government a quote for dual track in 2008 of around A$34 million per kilometer. This presupposed that 50% of the track was elevated and 50% was at grade (level with ground-based infrastructure like roads, etc.). Comparatively, at around the same time, the Victoria Regional Rail Link, which will be 29 miles (47 kilometers) long and include two stations, will cost around A$3.65 billion, or around A$78 million per km. However, the trains are much more expensive for the Transrapid system, with a comparative cost of between A$16.5-20 million for its commuter and luxury carriages compared to the InterCity Express built by Siemens at around A$5.6 million per carriage.

In general, the high cost of constructing and maintaining Transrapid maglev systems was one of the main factors contributing to the technology's limited adoption and eventual decline.

And that is your lot for today.

The Transrapid represents an ambitious and innovative chapter in the history of high-speed transportation. As a pioneering maglev train system, it showcased the potential of magnetic levitation and linear motor technologies to deliver fast, smooth, and efficient travel. Although its widespread adoption was limited by high costs, political and bureaucratic challenges, and competition from conventional high-speed rail systems, the Transrapid remains a testament to human ingenuity and the quest for better, faster transportation solutions.

But, like a number of good ideas, maglev trains may just be taking a while to catch on.

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