U.S. group seeks to slow the cost of speedy train

March 28, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

The United States can whoosh past Japan and Germany in the development of a commercially successful 300 mph train by pursuing a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem, a key proponent of building such a link between Baltimore and Washington said yesterday.

Richard J. Gran, a technical expert for the MAGLEV USA consortium, said the group's breakthrough in the development of a magnetic levitation railroad system is more a matter of concrete than exotic systems for suspending and propelling the vehicles.

Mr. Gran's statement came at a news conference called yesterday by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., to announce she will submit a bill requesting $500,000 in federal funds for a feasibility study of the Baltimore-Washington route.

Mr. Gran, a Grumman Corp. executive who is in charge of developing new commercially exploitable technologies, said a U.S. system employing a much lighter guideway system for the trains will be much less expensive to build than the guideways developed for the Japanese and German models. Grumman, an aerospace company based in Bethpage, N.Y., is a member of the MAGLEV USA consortium.

The Japanese and German support structures are generally made of concrete. The goal, he explained, would be to develop a system that requires much less concrete to build. "The lighter I can make it, the less concrete I need, the cheaper it is. It's that simple," Mr. Gran said.

Instead of riding on steel wheels and rails like conventional trains, magnetic levitation vehicles are held above the roadbed by electromagnetic forces. Such trains, in effect, fly across the landscape. Because there is so little friction, they are fast, quiet and energy-efficient.

Both the Japanese and the Germans have already built prototype maglev trains. But their roadways are very expensive -- about $24 million a mile.

Maglev USA believes its approach will permit a 40-mile system to be built between Baltimore and Washington for as little as half that amount, perhaps $12 million to $15 million a mile.

Such a system could whisk 1,000 to 3,000 passengers an hour between the two cities. The one-way trip, with a stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, would take about 15 minutes.

As Senator Mikulski put it, she could buy a cup of coffee in Baltimore, board the train and be in her office in Washington before the coffee cooled.

"You could charge 33 cents a mile," Mr. Gran said, adding that a one-way fare of $15 would be enough to pay for the construction

and still leave a profit for the operator. If Mr. Gran's assumptions prove correct, the unsubsidized fare using the Japanese and German technology could be close to twice as much.

Donald P. Hutchinson, president of Maryland Economic Growth Associates Inc., said the $600 million required to build a 40-mile high-speed railway would be about equal to the cost of a 6.5-mile section of the Baltimore Metro system.

"From here to Washington at roughly the same price -- that's incredible," he said.

Getting the government help needed to go forward with the project will require winning an intense competition, Ms. Mikulski said.

Washington state has already won a $500,000 grant for a feasibility study of the Seattle-Tacoma corridor.

Now that Maryland is pushing for a similar grant, others are expected to join the scramble, she said, observing that her funding request may precipitate "the equivalent of a maglev trade war."

She is reasonably confident of her ability to shepherd the feasibility grant request through Congress. But getting the government to choose the Baltimore-Washington route for a full-scale demonstration project will be much harder.

"That's going to be tough. Everyone's going to fight" to be selected, she said.

If the Baltimore-Washington route is chosen, it will take at least seven years to complete the system, even under a "fast-track" approach, Mr. Gran said. Another year or two of testing might be required before the system could be put into commercial use.

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