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TRAVEL TECH THURSDAY: Japan pushes maglev

Japan is now testing maglev trains for passenger service. If the only train you’ve ever ridden is in North America, you are not ready for this.

The country that invented high-speed passenger rail is about to re-invent it.

When it debuted back in 1964, Japan’s Shinkansen — aka “the bullet train” — shocked the world with its cruising speed of 186 miles per hour — a speed that, 50 years later, American trains still can’t even get near.

Now, the Japanese are again raising the bar for rail travel, this time by removing the rails. They are testing a maglev train whose top speed — 311 mph — makes the old bullet train look like Amtrak.

Yeah, I know. Ouch.

The L-Zero maglev doesn’t much resemble a bullet. If anything, it looks more like an anorexic platypus on a bad acid trip. But that’s about the only thing ungainly about this machine.

Maglev is short for “magnetic levitation.” Basically, a series of powerful magnetized coils embedded in a concrete guideway repels the equally powerful magnets embedded in the train’s undercarriage, and thus propels the train.

I can hear folks in Beijing gnashing their teeth already.

Yes, China has the world’s first maglev train in commercial service, shuttling travelers between Shanghai’s ultra-modern Pudong district and Pudong International Airport.

I’ve ridden that train, and the ride is as unforgettable as it is brief. But that’s a 20-mile shuttle, with no stops. The L-Zero will be carrying passengers between six stations along a 178-mile route, the kind of distance that maglev was custom-made.

Imagine what a maglev train could do for travel in this country:

  • New York City–Washington DC in about 50 minutes.
  • New York City–Chicago in just under three hours — a little over four, if you add stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
  • Chicago–New Orleans in three hours. Stop in St. Louis? Make it three and a half.
  • New York City–Orlando, FL in maybe four and a quarter hours, and that includes stops in Philly, DC and Atlanta.
  • San Francisco–Los Angeles in a shade over one hour. Another three hours north from SFO and you’re in Seattle.

It’ll be more than a decade before you can buy your own ticket on the L-Zero. Until then, you’ll have to settle for the Shinkansen…which is still twice as fast as anything Amtrak owns.

MORE TRAVEL TECH

Jet Lag
You’ve just crossed nine times zones in 12 hours, so you settle in to your hotel for a nice nap before you hit the streets, only to awake to an all-encompassing misery, complete with splitting headache and maybe nausea.

Say hello to my little friend, jet lag, which is going to render you null and void for the next several days.

(NOTE: Jet lag is the product of long flights east or west, especially east. If you never change times zones, no matter how long the flight, you are not jet lagged.)

There are lots of ways to stave off jet lag:

  • Get in shape before you travel.
  • Choose a flight that lands in the early evening so you can stay up until at least 10 p.m. local time.
  • Adjust your daily routine to your destination time zone several days before travel.
  • On the plane, reset your watch to the local time at your destination.
  • Avoid big, spicy meals, alcohol, caffeine, even chocolate, in flight or after landing.
  • Do drink lots of water.
  • Ask your doctor about taking melatonin, and use it if you think it will help.

There also are specific tools for fighting jet lag, one of which you already may have in your pocket. I’m talking, of course, about your smartphone.

That’s right, there’s an app for that. Quite a few, actually. They all help your body adjust its circadian rhythm to your destination with little or no physical discomfort.

Here’s a partial list:

Any of these apps can give you good advice on adjusting your body’s circadian rhythm; none can force you to take it. It’s still up to you to take care of yourself when you travel.

Keyless Hotel Rooms
Your smartphone serves many roles. It’s your mobile office, your pocket Web portal and email center, your moving map and weather forecaster, your camera and your bank.

It now may also be your hotel room key.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts — the folks who bring you the Aloft, Elements and W hotel chains — now offer a smartphone app that turns your iPhone or Android device into your room key. one touch and you;re in.

It also allows you to:

  • Check into your hotel, completely bypassing the front desk
  • Specify your preferred room location
  • Operate the hotel elevator

In the near future, company executives say you’ll be able to order room service with it.

This concept will really get a boost next spring, when Hilton Worldwide rolls out mobile room keys in four of its US-based hotel chains — Hilton Hotels and Resorts, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotels & Resorts, the Conrad Hotels & Resorts and Canopy by Hilton.

You can already check-in online and digitally select your preferred room with Hilton and Marriott, again without lining up at th front desk or talking to a reservationist.

With more of the Millennial Generation using their smartphones as minute-to-minute extensions of their daily lives, expect more major hotels to offer similar options in the near or very near future.

A form of this technology is even making its way out to sea, where Royal Caribbean plans to introduce wristbands embedded with an RFID chip to serve as the key to your cabin.

My own feelings on all this a little mixed.

On the one hand, technology has never intimidated me. And anything that removes the need for me to stand in a long line at the front desk after multi-hour flight sounds like a real improvement.

Still, I wonder sometimes if all our technology is not only cutting jobs, but reducing our amount of human interaction to unhealthy lows.

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