|Transrapid test track in Lathen, Germany (now demolished)|
The brave new world of magnetically levitated trains began in 1984 between the two tiny German communities of Dörpen (pop. 4,827) and Lathen (pop. 6,035). For 22 years trains would run with ever increasing speeds along the fully elevated mono rail in circles, for research and for show. Year after year new groups of engineers and politicians would come here to experience the future of high speed "post-rail" transportation as demonstrated by Transrapid. The German manufacturer consortium was the pride of a then divided nation which, divided or united, failed to ever put its own invention into revenue service, even though unification added plenty of room for investments in rail corridors that hadn't seen improvement in 60 years.
|Shanghai airport Maglev (Transrapid)|
In 2006 the by then more idyllic than futuristic German countryside loop- train crashed into a maintenance vehicle sitting on the tracks, sadly, several people died. Although this accident had nothing to do with the technology, it put the final nail in the coffin of the test track. Meanwhile Transrapid had managed to open the first revenue service of any Maglev in the world in Shanghai on a distance that exceeded the German test track by only a couple hundred feet.
|The 2006 wreck on the German test track|
A 20 miles airport shuttle (video) is quite a bit less than the dream of a high speed transport system of the 21st century which relegates steel rails and wheels to the dustbin of history.
This new "short hop" marketing angle as a kindo of short-range surface-jet is also the mother of the recycled idea of a Baltimore-Washington Maglev pilot project. With Transrapid as a parent the idea had just gained enough uplift to get a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) completed. This was in 2003. Then, as so many times before, the idea fizzled until nobody here mentioned Maglev anymore. Instead, Amtrak developed a masterplan for highspeed rail improvements for its lucrative Northeast corridor and MTA Maryland engaged in a MARC commuter train improvement plan for better connections to the District. Meanwhile China, the Country most ambitious in high speed trains set its investments all on the good old steel rail.
|Corridor Study Baltimore DC|
So now in 2013, it is back to the future: Maglev to DC is once again in the news from the Baltimore SUN, to the New York Times and the Economist, this time, though, the future speaks Japanese. The Japanese technology, too dates back as far as the 1960ties but it is more advanced than the Transrapid, with superconducting magnets and a guideway in form of a channel rather than a T. Once more the promise of Baltimore to DC in under 10 minutes and the famous one hour ride from Baltimore to new York let hearts beat faster, especially the hearts of a league of former transportation and government officials and media representatives who got to ride the magic train on a November Saturday. "Game changer" they whisper and forget all the reasons why US transportation is in such dire straits.
Governors Rendell and Pataki participated in the high tech tourism, and, of course, they were ecstatic, they are board members of the Japanese Consortium TNEM after all, along with Baltimore's very own Kevin Plank of Under Armour. Not to be left out, the Baltimore SUN wrote a forked-tongue editorial in which a long list of problems magically culminated in the conclusion that Baltimore should pursue this new suitor and his project. The Japanese firm offers some capital along with the trains and Japan, at least, is so serious about the technology that it is poised to build its own Maglev line. Similar to the Northeast corridor, the link between Tokyo to Nagoya is 270 km. It has a whopping price tag of $50 billion with over 80% of the line in tunnel. Envisioned construction begin: April 2014. But here, too, completion is far in the future, in 2027 per current schedule. The funding is supposed to come from the cash-flow of the hugely successful existing "bullet trains" operated by Japan Rail, a private company.
So can Maglev, German or Japanese, be the prince that turns the Baltimore frog into a princess again?
I like to be on the side of the future just as much as Ed Rendell or the next guy; by golly, I would love to ride the train, too, but no matter how fascinating the levitation and linear propulsion technology
|Japanese new Maglev bullet train on test track|
Not that I don't think Baltimore could be a gleaming jewel, but the answer to why Maglev won't be the magic bullet (ah, the pun!) lies in the past: Specifically with the reasons, why in over 30 years Maglev hasn't been built anywhere as a high speed long distance train. Experts also have doubts about the planned Japanese project and that it will get very far even there.
|TNEM logo, prominently displayed on the transportation page|
of the Greater Baltimore Committee
- Maglev, largely in tunnel, costs too much (twice as much as regular high speed rail), requiring ticket prices that are too high for a mass market as it is needed to support construction and operation
- Magnetic levitation is a technology where fleet and operating system are entirely incompatible with anything running anywhere. This requires a brand-new support system from scratch for everything. Several items necessary for large scale operation such as switches and ice built up on guide-ways are still considered risky by some experts, especially with the small Japanese tolerances. (Ice and snow is supposed to be combated with warm sprinklers!).
- Maglev is geared towards high speed operation on longer distances. It makes little sense on short distances, Shanghai's airport shuttle has already shown that.
- Demand on the Northeast Corridor isn't concentrated in city centers. In the typical fashion of US metropolitan areas, jobs and households are spread out across many nodes and clusters. Between DC and Baltimore those include New Carrolton, Odenton and BWI, even Halethorpe and going north to NYC there are many more points that cannot be easily skipped without losing significant ridership. These points are best served with regular commuter trains because maximum speed is less the issue than convenient access.
- Maglev's guideways are bulky and ugly. They require complete isolation from anything at grade and, due to the desired high speed, usually cannot use any of the historically available right of ways, an issue that even conventional HSR is battling to some extent, even though conventional HSR can slip back onto existing lines and stations at critical points.
- Maglev would significantly detract from upgrading existing Amtrak and commuter train services. Even if Maglev would be built all the way to the Big Apple, it would still not serve Boston, Richmond, or Miami, all serviced by Amtrak which can gradually improve.
- The fixation on new technology and speed to the detriment of access, connectivity and existing communities is an "old school" approach to solving problems with big, expensive and top down solutions reminiscent of the craze to extend freeways through city centers, large scale urban renewal, super high rises, fusion reactors and similarly destructive approaches where unintended consequences outweighed the benefits and often turned the dream into a nightmare.
Maglev offers no continuum, no incremental implementation and no solution for our cash starved infrastructure. Maglev requires the climber who wants to scale the mountain of the transportation problem not only to go back to the base station but also to move to the other, steeper side of the mountain. How much easier, even if not as intellectually stimulating is it to continue the climb on the existing path.
No matter how technologically attractive linear induction motors are to engineers, or travelling politicians, reality poses some real big hurdles, as boring as this may be. Maglev instead of being the future may well be the past, the same past of technological bulkiness that brought us nuclear power and kept fusion reactors out of reach. Maglev is likely not the answer, neither for global transportation nor for the renaissance of Baltimore, home of America's first passenger rail service.
|Maglev technology diagram (Transrapid)|
|Fascination with speed while racing through a tunnel. Japanese |
Maglev bullet train (Photo: Bloomberg)
Maglev Monorails of the World
Economic Impact Analysis Baltimore-DC Maglev (GBC, 2003)
Baltimore DC Maglev project description
NYT: Japan Pitches its High Speed Train with Offer to Finance
The Northeast Corridor Maglev (TNEM)
The Baltimore Sun editorial about Maglev
The Economist about TNEM
Video about Japanese Maglev