WORLD’S FIRST COMMERCIAL MAGLEV SYSTEM

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The revolutionary Birmingham Maglev Peoplemover was opened by the Queen in 1984 – and closed in 1995. The text below is how I wrote about the system in ‘Rail Bulletin’ – probably 1985. One of the original cars was reportedly sold for £100, and between 2001 and 2003, the original elevated guide way was re-used for a new horizontal cable-car link between the airport, the railway station and the NEC. Ironic that such an advanced system as ‘Maglev’ was replaced in the 21st century by what is effectively a cable car shuttle.

To be fair, the world’s first system had had a few problems with the electronics and control systems, but around the world, these systems have been pursued and are now a recognised commercial success. The Birmingham Maglev ran relatively successfully initially, but became unreliable and with a ‘haphazard’ service for its passengers was closed down in June 1995. Between June 1984 and the decision to close, it was described by some as a ‘frustrating’ service – not a good reputation for a key link between transport hubs! Alongside which, no other sales of the technology was made, and its systems and hardware were by the mid 1990s in need of major upgrade as technology. In fact, some of the suppliers had gone out of business, and developments elsewhere around the world were well advanced.

The reasons given for the closure was stated as the cost of reinstating and maintaining this innovative transport system was going to be too high. It achieved some newspaper coverage again 10 years ago – no less a person than the then Shadow Chancellor – George Osborne suggested building ‘Maglev’ lines between Britain’s major cities would be a boost to the UK transport system. How times change!

Such a pity the UK – both manufacturing industry and Government didn’t have the courage in the 1980s to continue the development, just as it failed with tilting train technology in the ill-fated ‘Advanced Passenger Train’ (APT). Just another example of the lack of belief in UK innovation and technology skills perhaps?

This is what we said after its first year of operation:

“A revolutionary transport system – the world’s first commercial, magnetic levitation people mover – has been carrying passengers over the short link between Birmingham International Airport, and the nearby International rail station, for just over a year now. It has been compared, a little unfairly perhaps, to a horizontal lift, but has demonstrated the technical and commercial viability of such projects. Whilst the Birmingham Maglev project has a fairly short design history, that of its linear induction motor propulsion system can be traced back many years through research and development work by British Railways in the 1960s. Construction of’ Maglev has been a joint venture between the west Midlands County Council, and the Peoplemover Group. Amongst the members of the latter team are Balfour-Beatty, responsible for civil engineering work, Brush Traction, supplying traction control equipment, GEC Transmission & Distribution Projects providing the power supply hardware, with British Rail providing the R&D support.

birmingham-maglev-route

Initially, only two vehicles were provided, whilst a third was installed following proving trials earlier this year. The passenger carrying capacity now totals 120 people (40 per car), and despite early doubts, it has proved possible to couple the cars together in multiple, with some improvement in lateral stability. It was also hoped that the fully operational Maglev would be handed over to the airport authorities by the end of March, although this had still not been completed by September.

Despite the complexity of the project, there have been few operational problems, including a couple of de-levitations and teething troubles with the automatic train operation (ATO) system. Similar minor adjustments were necessary to the emergency brake pads, which come into play during an emergency should a de-levitation cause the car to settle on the pads and slide to a halt. After tests on various materials, pads fitted with the most suitable type were installed.

The 600v d.c. traction power supply has two independent feeds, one being provided as a backup in the event of a failure, through GEC manufactured switchgear, to the steel faced aluminium conductor rails, from a single sub-station. In the Maglev installation, the substation also houses the line choke – equipment that in conventional rail vehicles is normally carried on board. As with the centrally placed motor reaction rail (actually the ‘rotor’ of the Linear Induction Motor), the conductor rails were installed outwards towards the two ends of the Maglev track, from the central, removable section. Current collection is by means of pairs of metallised carbon shoes mounted on aluminium brackets attached to the inner pair of magnets at each end of the door side of’ the vehicle. Evidence of the interaction between the participating organisations in the Peoplemover Group on this project, can be seen in the propulsion and propulsion control equipment.

Brush Traction, who have been responsible for the supply of the propulsion control equipment, adopted GEC transistor power switches in the inverters providing the variable voltage/variable frequency supply to the L.I.M. Each of the pulse width modulated inverters comprises three transistor modules, and are similar to the equipment supplied in GEC’s ‘Transidrive’ hardware included in the vehicles operating on Toronto’s ICTS system. Each of the three modules in the inverter corresponds to a single phase of a 3-phase supply, with the output from the inverter monitored continuously to give constant thrust output from the motor. Continuous monitoring of the power supply from the inverter assumes a particular importance with Maglev, in view of’ the large (nominally 20mm) operating gap between the LIM’s rotor (reaction rail) and stator (vehicle mounted). Protecting the inverter circuits is a thyristor ‘crowbar’, which short circuits the supply to the inverter in the event of low control supplies, or an over voltage in the power circuits.

birmingham-maglev-car

There are many obvious differences between Maglev and conventional guided transport systems, not least being the magnetic suspension and guidance, non-contact propulsion, and automatic, computer controlled operation. The track and associated civil engineering work has necessitated a very different approach to that adopted in the building of a new line of railway, or more traditional urban transport system. The unique features of Maglev can reduce operational and maintenance costs, with an overall reduction of 10% claimed in favour of’ this project, whilst the direct energy costs (electricity supplied) of the Birmingham link have amounted to £20,000 p.a. Overall, the past year has been a successful one for Maglev, with the staff of the airport authority fully trained and ready to take over complete control of this short link. It may be however, that the project will remain an isolated example, at least in the U.K., for some time yet.

birmingham-maglev-cars-at-airport-station

In the West Midlands there is a need to improve the urban transport network, and with the Maglev experience already under its belt so to speak, it might be argued that the opportunity exists to extend and develop network of’ such links. However, in November 1985, West Midlands C.C. will see its Bill for the first stage of a Light Rapid Transit network begin its progress through Parliament. The’ Supertram’ system chosen by West Midlands will be similar to networks already in operation in some European cities, with a 750V d.c. overhead power supply. Design and layout of power/control equipment for the vehicles that are to be used is already being actively pursued, and if all goes well with the parliamentary proceedings, similar, detailed work will begin on the power supplies in mid 1986, with operations to begin in 1987. Maglev may have its attractions, and success stories, but it seems conventional electric traction technology still has a lot to offer the inner cities.”

-oOo-

Further Reading: