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A test ride at the foot of Mount Fuji on a magnetically levitated (maglev) train is proving extremely popular with curious people who want to experience a ride on the world’s fastest train, which runs at a speed of 500 kph.

“This is a good chance to get in touch with next-generation technology,” said Kazuhiko Nozue, 32, from Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, as he boarded a maglev train with his two children. “We wanted to experience ultra high speed,”

Nozue was among 246 groups of people selected from among about 16,700 applicants to ride on a maglev train in May. He was chosen after two unsuccessful applications.

Central Japan Railways Co. (JR Tokai), which is testing the train on an 18.4-km experimental track in Yamanashi Prefecture, has offered test rides 12 times since the testing began in July 2000. The average applicant has from one chance in 70 to one chance in 140 of being selected, company officials said.

The maglev floats on a magnetic field, eliminating wheel friction at high speeds. An unmanned maglev has sped to a new world record of more than 550 kph, topping the speed record for conventional trains held by the French TGV, which hit 515 kph in 1990.

About 30 seconds after departure, the train’s speed surpasses 130 kph, and the wheels are retracted like those of an airplane. When the train reaches 160 kph, the noise of friction with the track disappears and no vibrations can be felt. The train floats 10 cm above the track and passengers feel as if they are flying at low altitude.

In a short time the speed exceeds 300 kph, the maximum speed that the Nozomi bullet train runs on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines. Electric boards at the entrances to the seating areas flash when the train’s speed hits 452 kph, usually setting off excited cries and picture-taking among the passengers.

“This train has registered the world’s top train speed of 552 kph,” a JR Tokai official said. “In the future, it will connect Tokyo and Osaka in one hour.”

After the 25-minute test ride, Ryu Saito, from Yokohama, said, “You can move freely because there are no seat belts. When it is put into practical use, I would use the maglev rather than an airplane.”

But an executive of another JR group company is critical of the train, saying, “It’s the same as a new attraction at an amusement park.”

A Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry official said there are many problems to be resolved before the maglev can be put into practical use, such as its demand and economic effects, the huge construction cost, estimated at 8 trillion yen, fixing fares, and competition for passengers between the maglev and bullet trains on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line.

But JR Tokai executive Chuji Morishita said, “This is the third railway traffic revolution, following railway construction in the Meiji Era and the Tokaido Shinkansen Line after World War II.”

“The inauguration of the maglev will break Japan’s stagnation, both politically and economically,” he reckoned.

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