Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Why can’t we have the vibranium-powered passenger trains of the Black Panther universe?
Among the many dazzling technologies in the new Marvel superhero film Black Panther—self-healing catsuits, holographic self-driving cars, indestructible woven capes—one technology is bittersweet to behold, at least for one subset of sci-fi nerd. That would be the trains. (Spoilers ahead.)
In the opening shot of the capital city of Wakanda, the fictional African nation ruled by the pantherine sovereign/superhero T’Challa, levitating trains zip along ribbons of track through dense Afrofuturist high-rises and low-slung commercial corridors tufted with parks and forests. Later, T’Challa and Nakia, an elite Wakandan spy and his former lover, catch up as streetcars hover through the trendy neighborhood of Steptown. An extensive freight network for transporting vibranium, the mythical metal found only in Wakanda, also lines and connects its cavernous mines.
Amid all the villain-spearing happening in Black Panther, the audiences don’t learn too much about the trains of Wakanda—where they stop, how people board, if they take monthly passes or tokens, whether they’re funded via voter-approved rail bond (if this is, in fact, a democratic monarchy) or an infinitely replenished vibranium-backed trust. But it is clear that they use magnetic levitation technology, driven by some combination of hyperloop-esque sonic power, vibranium, and the inventive genius of Shuri, Wakanda’s princess and benevolent tech overlord. Also known: Bay Area Rapid Transit, the metro system of director Ryan Coogler’s youth, influenced the aesthetic of the cars, according to a Wired interview with production designer Hannah Beachler.
But that is where the similarities between Wakandan and real-world rapid transit end, especially for U.S. viewers, as a number of them remarked on Twitter. Tweeting at the beleaguered agency serving Washington, D.C., “@wmata should send a delegation to Wakanda to check out their transit system,” one user quipped.
Other cities got thrown Panther-inspired transit shade. Likely referring to Boston’s problem-ridden system, @NCC20 tweeted, “In Wakanda, mass transit always works unlike the T.” “Wakanda has better public transit than Atlanta does,” observed @cbolden_15. And then, perfectly capturing every New Yorker’s feelings after seeing Black Panther, this:
wow there’s nothing quite like experiencing a technologically advanced Wakanda only to come back to reality and experience a broken ass transit system underground in between stations overheating with no service @MTA it’s truly remarkable wow #blessed— Jawn Valjawn (@jackiepayton) February 19, 2018
So, why can’t real people have Wakanda transit?
There’s not that much standing in our way, technologically speaking. Even in the absence of vibranium, maglev has proven itself in a handful of now-operating systems. Shanghai’s Transrapid system tops out around 267 mph. In Japan, maglev trains will soon travel the 178 miles between Tokyo and Nagoya at upwards of 310 mph. Like surfboards riding magnetic waves, maglev trains levitate above guideways, propelled by surges of electricity. Suited for shorter, intra-city trips, maglev’s wheel-free, frictionless design allows trains to quickly ramp up to super-fast speeds.
Some transport researchers say maglev has the potential to be more efficient and long-lasting than high-speed rail. (Others disagree.) But despite decades of development, maglev hasn’t spread widely across Asia, and it hasn’t taken off at all in the U.S. or Europe (excluding a now-shuttered airport line in the U.K., and a defunct test track in Germany.) That’s because traditional high-speed rail can run nearly as fast as maglev, is cheaper to build, and can connect to existing rail systems, whereas maglev guideways cannot. For many countries with rail networks already in place, it’s hard to justify spending billions of dollars on such a project.
That hasn’t entirely cooled floating-train fever: Maglev routes have been proposed in the U.S. (most recently, between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.). But they’re a tough sell, especially these days. The federal government shows little interest in funding upgrades to even basic passenger rail and existing mass transit systems, though it pours billions into roads and highways. There is money for great transit; the U.S. just chooses not to spend it that way.
Indeed, like so many things, the reason U.S. cities lack Wakanda-level transit is for lack of political will. As CityLab’s Brentin Mock notes, the closed-door African monarchy of the Black Panther film and comic book promotes freedom, equality, and prosperity for all denizens. It is also a very urban place by necessity. To shield itself against colonialism and plunder, Wakanda poses on the world stage as a poor, arid backwater; this pushes dense development (with a conspicuous lack of private cars) to its hidden interior. The U.S. is urban too, with more than 80 percent of the population living in urban areas. But the distribution of political representation, and hence the dollars, favor rural areas.
Many transit systems are suffering accordingly, because of decades-long funding declines. More recently, the Trump administration has proposed setting aside a few billion for “transformative” projects (a couple inches of maglev, perhaps?). But its much-talked-about infrastructure plan is essentially biased against cities, in that it requires enormous local dollar matches for its proposed infrastructure grants.
The court of T’Challa doesn’t have problems like these: His transit chief likely enjoys a blank check for transportation improvements, sort of like the one Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s office promised to hand Amazon (then walked back) for settling its second headquarters in Montgomery County. (Wakanda would be wise to steer clear of such corporate welfare games.) No wonder CIA agent Everett Ross is dumbfounded by his encounter with Wakandan transit, in particular. Regarding the super-fast maglev people-movers, Ross remarks to Shuri, “I’ve never seen it this efficient.”
This is one Afrofuturist monarchy that would have much to teach Planet Earth. At least one D.C. commuter agrees: “The first thing Wakanda should do for the world is fix WMATA,” tweeted @dshif. Too bad there’s reality to consider. Replied @Baetsmen: “Even for Wakanda, that may be a tall order.”