Levitating to Washington

April 02, 1991

Will a day come when passengers can hop on a train in downtown Baltimore and arrive in downtown Washington 15 minutes later? Boosters of the "magnetic levitation" concept say such speed and convenience could be possible by the year 2000 -- if Congress can be persuaded to back a $600-million project to demonstrate the versatility of these quiet, vibration-free trains.

The new technology is mind-boggling. Magnetic levitation trains, instead of riding on steel wheels and rails, would float above a roadbed to which they are linked by electromagnetic forces.

The initial maglev technology was developed by American scientists in the 1960s. But as in the case of two other flashes of American imagination -- the VCR and fiber optics -- Japanese and German companies (and governments) have become the leading developers of this revolutionary transportation mode.

In fact, when Las Vegas asked for bids for a maglev line linking that city with Los Angeles, the only proposal came from a German consortium. "This is a technology that might mean to the next century what civil aviation has meant to the latter part of this century," says Rep. Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat.

An American consortium, contending that perfecting magnetic levitation outside the laboratory is too expensive for the private sector to undertake single-handedly, is trying to secure federal aid to catch up with the Germans and Japanese.

Maryland's Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski says she will introduce legislation that would designate the Baltimore-Washington corridor for the construction of a 40-mile roadbed for 300-mph magnetic levitation passenger trains. This is a 21st century idea that merits strong congressional support in the final decade of the 20th century.

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