Funding urged for trains using magnetic levitation

October 25, 1990|By Doug Birch

An MIT professor preached revolution in Baltimore this week -- a revolution that, he said, would slash U.S. energy consumption, reduce pollution and ease gridlock.

Richard D. Thornton, an electrical engineering teacher and adviser to the U.S. Senate's Public Works Committee, said the country should build a nationwide network of magnetic levitation, or maglev, systems -- trains that fly an inch or so above their monorail-style tracks on a cushion of magnetism at speeds in excess of 300 mph.

The technology was invented in the United States during the 1960s, and a version was developed by Mr. Thornton and a group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who built and tested a working-scale model in 1974. But Washington cut funding for research in 1975, and both the Japanese and the West Germans took up where the United States left off, developing full-scale test systems.

Interest in maglev has exploded in this country over the past several years. Mr. Thornton, in a speech at the University of Maryland's Westminster Hall, noted there were now at least six "active proposals" to build maglev lines in Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, California and Nevada.

The Bush administration has earmarked $9.7 million in next year's budget to study proposals for large-scale maglev systems, but it favors private sector construction and operation of those systems.

Mr. Thornton disagreed, saying development of an interstate maglev system would require massive federal aid -- the same type Washington offered to spur development of the transcontinental railroad and the interstate highway system.

He noted that the nation's first railway line, the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, was dedicated in Baltimore on July 4, 1828, and that Baltimore's MAGLEV USA, a corporate group founded earlier this year, planned to seek $700 million from Congress next year for a maglev line linking Baltimore and Washington.

"On July 4, 1998, 170 years after the B&O was launched, maybe we'll launch another transportation revolution here," he said.

Revolution is not too strong a word, he suggested. "Maglev is not glorified rapid transit," he said. "It's a whole new mode of travel."

He sketched a vision of a continental network of maglev tracks or "guideways," built along the right of way of the existing interstate highway network and powered by existing electric generating plants.

Each section would be owned and operated as a kind of toll road by the state where it is located, carrying both passengers and freight, public and private vehicles. Travelers could either ride in coaches, or they could drive their cars onto maglev "ferry" units.

Passengers could travel from one coast to the other in an overnight, 12-hour trip, he predicted.

Fares would range from about half to about a quarter of the cost of airline tickets.

It would be too expensive, he cautioned, to build maglev lines through most cities, suggesting that terminals be built along beltways to make them more convenient to suburban travelers and businesses.

This vision conflicts with the maglev proposal for Baltimore. Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and chairman of MAGLEV USA, said his group was looking at construction of a 35-mile "guideplane" connecting Camden Yards with Washington's Union Station.

A key goal of the group is attracting new businesses, federal agencies and residents to Baltimore's downtown.

Mr. Thornton, who leads a team of MIT scientists studying maglev design, said the current cost of building a two-way track -- between $20 million and $24 million a mile -- could be reduced to between $8 million and $10 million per mile in congested areas using technology under development.

That would be roughly the same as the cost of a new four-lane interstate highway, and a maglev system would carry five times the traffic.

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