Fuel worries, pollution concerns and America's increasingly claustrophobic highway systems have revived official interest in "mag-lev" trains.
"Mag-lev" is shorthand for magnetic levitation, a high-tech transportation technology that was conceived in the United States 24 years ago but then stalled in this country in the 1970s. It has been developed since then mostly by the Germans and Japanese.
Mag-lev trains would "float" along elevated guideways, suspended on a quiet and nearly frictionless cushion of electrically generated magnetism, and propelled by the same force at speeds of up to 300 mph.
Mag-lev has support in the Bush administration, and this year's budget, once it's passed, includes $10 million for mag-lev design studies. One hundred ninety companies and universities have expressed an interest in working on the project.
Proponents such as Richard D. Thornton, an electrical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the U.S. Senate's Mag-lev Technical Advisory Committee, say mag-lev trains are a sure bet, and a Baltimore-Washington demonstration line would be an ideal place to start.
"I can almost guarantee mag-lev will be built; the only question is where and by whom," Thornton said in a recent interview. "I think we could have a Baltimore-to-Washington section running in six to seven years."
"Mag-lev is definitely more attractive now [than it was in the '70s], not because its technology has changed, but because we appreciate the problems now. Now we can see the congestion," he said.
Thornton was scheduled to speak on "Mag-lev: Supertrain of the Future," in a speech at noon today at Westminster Hall, part of the Professionally Speaking series sponsored by the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
Federal money for mag-lev development dried up in the 1970s when the government decided instead to rescue crumbling passenger railroads. Germany and Japan picked up the idea and now have working prototypes.
But Thornton said mag-lev is not really a replacement for the older and slower steel wheel and rail technology.
Mag-lev trains would fill a need for high-speed, low-cost transportation at distances between 100 and 600 miles. That need is now filled mostly by short-haul aircraft and interstate highways, Thornton said.
The problem is, the highways and airports are getting so crowded they need to be expanded, at an enormous cost in land acquisition and construction.
Mag-lev, he said, "has the schedule attributes of an airline, with point-to-point travel and relatively few stops, in vehicles going very fast and no contact with the ground."
It also has the "ground advantage of a guideway, which makes it a lot safer, and the vehicles are less expensive," he said. Most would be built on interstate highway rights-of-way, making land acquisition costs low and stations easy to get to.
Mag-lev trains could be built into city centers, but a less costly system would locate terminals outside the cities, linking up with existing bus or rail transit.
Other advantages, said Thornton, include:
* Construction costs -- High mag-lev construction costs have scared off officials in Texas and Maryland in the past. But, with simpler, scaled-down guideway designs and lighter vehicles devised in the past year at MIT, Thornton said, mag-lev lines could be built on highway rights-of-way for as little as $5 million a mile. That's half the cost of an interstate highway, and a quarter the projected costs of a heavier German-designed mag-lev envisioned for the Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas corridor. The French are building high-speed steel-wheel trains at $7 million a mile. The mag-lev costs would double in high-density urban areas.
* Land use -- A mag-lev train from Boston to Atlanta would require less land than planners want for one proposed new airport in Dallas.
* Energy -- Aerodynamically efficient mag-lev trains would run on electricity generated for now by existing power plants. MIT projects mag-lev trains will be two to four times more energy efficient than airplanes. New power stations would eventually be needed as the system grows.
* Air pollution -- "Clean" coal-burning generators, nuclear power, links to Canadian hydro-electric power and reduced consumption by short-haul aircraft, cars and trucks would minimize or reduce air pollution. It also would cut American reliance on imported oil for transportation.
* Low fares -- MIT is estimating that mag-lev fares would be half those of airlines at peak times, and a quarter those in off-peak hours.
* Speed -- Mag-lev would be twice as fast as high-speed "bullet trains," with quicker acceleration and deceleration.
The whole thing makes so much sense, Thornton said, that if we don't build it here, we'll only wind up paying the Germans or the Japanese to build it for us.