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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Why Did Birmingham Airport’s Maglev Shuttle Close After Just 11 Years?

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Those who have traveled to Birmingham Airport (BHX) in the UK by train will be familiar with the need to use the Air-Rail Link people mover from the station to the terminal. This shuttle is presently a cable hauled system, but did you know that it previously used ‘Maglev’ technology. This began in 1984, and ended after just 11 years. But why exactly?

Birmingham Airport Maglev
The Birmingham Maglev was operational for just 11 years. Photo: MaltaGC via Wikimedia Commons

A world first

Birmingham Airport, in England’s West Midlands, made history in 1984. It did so because it devised an innovative solution to connect its terminal to the nearby Birmingham International railway station. Specifically, it made use of ‘Maglev’ technology to operate an automated people mover along a 600-meter stretch of concrete guided track.

This technology made use of repelling magnetic forces between the shuttle and its tracks to cause it to ‘hover’ 1.5 cm in the air. Powered by linear induction motors, the Birmingham Maglev ‘flew’ between the railway station and the terminal building.

According to maglev.net, the futuristic transit did so at speeds of up to 26 mph (42 km/h). The system was popular with passengers, and held the title of being the world’s first-ever commercial maglev transportation system. However, it didn’t last long.

Birmingham Maglev
One of the Maglev’s cars is displayed at York’s National Railway Museum. Photo: Tom Page via Flickr

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The end of the line

Despite the Birmingham Maglev’s initial popularity among travelers looking to transit between the terminal and the station, it soon became plagued with reliability problems. A frequent issue was electrical failures concerning the magnetic transit system.

These issues arose as a result of obsolescence problems concerning Birmingham Maglev’s electrical systems. The unreliability eventually reached a point where the airport elected to close the levitating people mover. It did so in 1995, after 11 years of operations. After the last service on June 18th, Birmingham Airport replaced the Maglev with a bus.

Meanwhile, the former transit system’s cars were stored, with one ending up at the National Rail Museum. The BBC reports that, in 2011, another was purchased privately for just £100. This came about after the carriage had initially been sold to a £25,100 bid on eBay, only for the bidder not to pay up. Needless to say, the private buyer got a bargain!

Birmingham Airport Transit
Since 2003, cable-hauled people movers have plied the Birmingham Maglev’s route. Photo: Doppelmayr Cable Car via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s people mover system

The shuttle bus that replaced the Birmingham Maglev operated for eight years, until a new transit system re-opened on top of its old concrete guideways. Known first as SkyRail, and now as the Air-Rail Link, these automated people movers carried three million passengers a year at their peak. The service is free to use, and fully automated.

Unfortunately, due to a temporary closure of the link, air passengers needing the railway station must currently get there by a replacement bus. According to BHX’s website, this operates every 10 minutes, running until an hour after the last flight of the day arrives.

Did you know about Birmingham Airport’s former Maglev shuttle? Perhaps you even went on it at some point during its 11 years of operations? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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