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Nevomo: A different kind of magnetic railway

A sustainable magnet upgrade for rail tracks

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop was the talk of the town not so long ago, but the project has recently bogged down due to technical and financial challenges. A Polish startup called “Nevomo” sees its approach as forming a link between modern maglev trains and conventional train operations. Expanding and upgrading the existing infrastructure with “MagRail” technology and linear motors should improve the efficiency and performance of rail traffic. Opportunities abound in the area of rail freight traffic in particular...

Nevomo is a company with Polish roots and was founded in 2017 with the goal of developing a magnetic drive inspired by Hyperloop. But while Hyperloop is facing a number of challenges and because practical implementation has currently come to a standstill, Nevomo promises a much more pragmatic approach. In addition, the timetable is said to be significantly more concrete and to offer a faster route to added value.

“Tuning” of existing infrastructure

Previous maglev trains were considered technological marvels, but building them has often been associated with high costs for the required infrastructure. Nevomo’s “MagRail” technology can be understood as a link between conventional railways and “magnet technology.” Trains equipped with this new technology do not need newly built tracks. They can utilize existing conventional railway routes. This reduces protracted construction times and results in lower costs for (new) construction. In other words, trains outfitted with MagRail technology could continue to use existing routes, train stations, ports and track connections.

Two rails for the track, one for the drive

How is this goal to be achieved? The upgrade with Nevomo MagRail technology can be divided into an “active” and a “passive” part. The active part involves equipping the existing track with Nevomo components, which can be simply mounted to the sleepers. The passive part requires upgrading of the rolling stock, in other words the trains themselves. The core of this innovation is primarily the “linear motor,” a magnetic drive system that enables the power transmission by means of a corresponding system on the rail vehicle. Also called a “booster,” this motor transmits the drive force directly to the train, and in its final form (with vacuum tubes), it is expected to achieve peak speeds as high as 550 kilometers per hour. Another positive side effect: The higher transport capacity will result in a corresponding decrease in costs. 

Europe sees potential

Another of the major advantages is that the technology could be deployed and put into operation within this decade. According to Nevomo, hybrid operation should be possible by the end of the 2020s, followed by full “MagRail” routes at the start of the 2030s. The plans are ambitious, but not entirely unrealistic. For example, a number of partners in the railway industry as well as the EU have taken an interest in the concept—hardly remarkable considering the dense route network that covers the “old continent.”

The EU is participating via the European Innovation Council Accelerator (EIC-A) and is investing a total of 17.5 million euros into the technology. The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) has also invested in Nevomo. This is not such a surprise since the EIT is an independent institute with the goal of strengthening Europe’s capacity for innovation.

The company is currently working to bring the product to market maturity on a test route over 700 meters in length. The test track in Nowa Sarzyna, Poland, is Europe’s longest track for testing the passive maglev train technology and should enable test runs at up to 160 kilometers per hour.

Great advantages, especially in freight transport

Alongside the advantage previously mentioned of the ability to retrofit existing infrastructure and thereby get the best of both worlds, there are also a number of other benefits.

When it comes to energy efficiency, for example, Nevomo’s technology is well suited for certain route sections featuring inclines that are steeper than usual. “Upgrading” such routes with Nevomo components would reduce emissions by increasing performance since no additional locomotives would be required. The new drive system will also increase the tractive output of the train, saving energy in comparison with the next-best alternative, namely diverting the freight train to routes that are less steep.

There are also advantages in the maintenance and soiling of freight wagons as maintenance costs are lower since fewer spare parts are needed. The reason: The wheels are used for rolling but not — as usual — for braking and accelerating since this is done by the magnetic drive system. Wear is minimized, and costs are lowered.

Quiet, autonomous pods and lots of space savings

The main advantage, specifically the ability to utilize the existing infrastructure, should itself not be underestimated. Nevomo’s technology does not require the use of additional land or the construction delays arising from protracted environmental assessments. Moreover, the construction of entirely new maglev train infrastructure in existing ports and terminals, where space is often limited, is simply not possible. Nevomo, on the other hand, could bring greater capacity to the same tracks and even support the semi-automation of port operations.

For example, traditional trains could use the infrastructure during the day, while at night and new MagRail pods could use the tracks as a conveyor belt for containers at night to expand capacity. Such a system could also make use of existing high-speed railway routes, which are currently not accessible to freight trains – both autonomous and automated of course...

The icing on the cake: The magnetic drive system is also much quieter, and squealing brakes would be relegated to history, a distinct advantage for so many “historic ports” in the vicinity of residential areas.

Will we be seeing the big transition soon?

Although the company is already working intensely to complete the initial tests, only time will tell how things will actually unfold. At the moment, there are two well-known hurdles: The first is that the costs are largely dependent on the specific application and the required performance parameters. According to current estimates, upgrading existing infrastructure could cost on the order of three million euros per kilometer.

The second major challenge lies in guaranteeing compatibility with today’s railway technology systems. From a legal perspective, a clear approval framework is also required. In other words, is this a “maglev system,” a railroad, or both?

One thing remains certain: It would be a thrilling sight to someday see freight trains “gliding” relatively quietly and effortlessly over three rails or small “magnet pods” chauffeuring individual containers through narrow terminals...

Pods for container terminals

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