A maglev train could get from D.C. to Baltimore in 15 minutes or to New York City in an hour.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's dream of building a magnetic levitation train — known as maglev — has taken two key steps, placing Maryland among a small number of states slowly moving toward establishing the first high-speed rail systems in the U.S., a half century after Japan operated its first bullet train.
On Nov. 7, Maryland received a $28 million federal grant to study the engineering and planning of a 40-mile line connecting Baltimore and Washington, a critical part of the federal environmental approval process. And on Nov. 17 the state’s public service commission transferred a passenger railroad franchise to The Northeast Maglev, the private sector firm contributing $7 million to the engineering study.
“This is big news,” said Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn. “This goes beyond the feasibility study and goes into its planning and engineering. This is a big step. This is a requirement necessary for a project to actually occur.”
Trying maglev again
Indeed, Maryland is further along than the last time the state considered maglev at the beginning of the last decade. The project failed to secure public support or the necessary funding, and a 2004 state statute blocked further work.
More recently, Pennsylvania gave up on its maglev studies, returning the grant money to the Federal Railroad Administration three years ago. That opened up an opportunity for Maryland to apply for the funds.
Why will this time be different? Sec. Rahn points to the private sector taking the lead with support from Japan.
“If you look around the country, there have been an awful lot of proposed maglev projects that just have fizzled as they moved down the path,” Rahn said. “What is interesting in this case is the pledge of funding coming from Japan.”
The Japan Bank of International Cooperation has pledged — pending the outcome of the federal environmental reviews of the project — a loan to cover half the estimated cost of about $10 billion. The Northeast Maglev (TNM) also has reached a deal with the Central Japan Railway Company to use its super conducting maglev technology, which moves trains well over 300 miles per hour. Central Japan Railway’s maglev is the fastest train in the world.
“We already have an agreement with the [railroad] that they would transfer that technology to us,” said Wayne Rogers, the chief executive of TNM. “We’ve looked over the entire world, and the Japanese technology is the newest, the best, the fastest, and the safest technology for high speed rail transportation.”
Rogers expects the engineering and planning studies to take about three years.
“We are very far along in what is a marathon and not a sprint. We have yet to finish the environmental impact statement work and yet to get all the state and local approvals, and the federal government approvals we need for the safety of the project,” he said.
High-speed rail in the United States
If Maryland and its private sector partners are able to see a Baltimore-to-D.C. maglev line through to completion, they would be among a small but growing number of states progressing on a long-stalled project: high-speed rail in the United States.
As mentioned, Japan has been running bullet trains for 50 years and is building out its maglev line that will eventually connect Tokyo and Nagoya.
China has 10,000 miles of high-speed rail, and started running a maglev in Shanghai in April 2004 at speeds of 267 miles per hour. Its inaugural ride was on New Year's Eve in 2002, less than two years from the contract signing.
Several other nations — Korea, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and England — have been running trains over 200 miles per hour for years. (The international measurement for high-speed rail generally is considered cruising speeds of at least 150 miles per hour).
In the U.S., Amtrak’s Acela in the Northeast Corridor is the closest thing to high-speed rail, but it barely qualifies. It reaches 150 miles per hour for a few minutes on a single 30-mile stretch of rail in Rhode Island. Between D.C. and New York, Acela’s average speed is about 80 miles per hour, and plans to straighten the right-of-way to improve Acela’s efficiency would take years and many billions of dollars.
“We don't have a big history of that here in the United States,” said Rob Puentes, a transportation policy expert at the Brookings Institution.
“We are just barely now starting to experiment with high speed rail investments. There are really good projects underway in California, in Texas, and in Florida.”
Construction of the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line started in January. But its budget reportedly will exceed the planned $68 billion because of tunneling issues along earthquake fault lines.
Building maglev — where trains float above a magnetic guideway — would also present physical challenges.
“We know that it certainly works in other parts of the world,” said Puentes, referring to the Japanese and Chinese systems. “The challenge is how do you do it here in the United States? Particularly, how would you do it in a congested corridor between Washington and Baltimore? The challenge with maglev is it has to be straight and it has to be flat, and that usually means tunneling.”
“It is going to happen.”
Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who made funding high-speed rail a priority during President Obama’s first term, said maglev’s expense of initial construction has been the biggest obstacle in the U.S.
“But when the Japanese came into the United States and made a huge investment it became clear that now it was incumbent upon maglev advocates to find money to match that,” said LaHood in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
“I think maglev is the next generation of transportation,” LaHood said. “When you have the Japanese willing to invest $5 billion you have to take that seriously because they have the expertise.”
More broadly, LaHood expects high-speed rail (the usual steel-on-steel technology) to take off in the coming decade. At the Obama administration’s urging, Congress appropriated close to $11 billion for the projects.
“For the naysayers and the detractors that want to continue to talk about traditional means of transportation, they are living in the past. They need to look to the future,” LaHood said.
“It is going to happen in California. It is going to happen along the Northeast Corridor with maglev. It is happening in Texas between Dallas and Houston. There are a number of projects that will put the United States on the map.”
The Brookings Institution’s Puentes said the U.S. does not lack opportunities for such projects. High-speed rail makes sense when it connects two major economic hubs that are too far apart for driving but too close for flying.
“High-speed rail is getting caught up in the larger infrastructure challenges we’re having in this country,” he said. “A lot of cities and states would love to have this done.”
But Puentes expects the straightening out of the Acela tracks could be the closest the Northeast Corridor comes to getting high-speed rail for the foreseeable future. A Baltimore-to-Washington maglev line could take ten years to finish, and extending the maglev up to New York could take decades longer.
In the meantime, critics contend Maryland has other, more important transit priorities.
“Certainly there are huge transit needs,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a public transit and environmental advocacy group.
Schwartz calls the maglev project a “distraction.”
“Maryland has done a significant study of MARC commuter rail needs. People would love to have all-day, two-way service between Baltimore and Washington and what better thing to jump start the continued revitalization of Baltimore,” he said.