The magnetic appeal of speed

June 13, 1994

The ultra-high-speed "maglev" train is an idea whose time hasn't quite come. But it could -- soon enough to justify serious evaluation of its promise.

Prototypes of magnetic levitation trains, which "float" over tracks without the braking effect of friction, have been tested for decades. Several commercial systems are in the works. But maglev is still experimental, with no agreement on rival technologies, much less its economic feasibility.

Maryland and other states are competing for a proposed $1.3 billion project to develop a U.S. system that would propel trains at 300 miles an hour. The first hurdle is getting Congress to appropriate the money, which it presently shows no sign of doing. Then rival bids will be sorted out. Maryland's is strong, for several reasons.

A study prepared by consultants to Maryland government and business interests concluded that a maglev system between Baltimore and Washington, with a crucial spur to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, would be technically and financially feasible. Assuming construction by 2005, the system would carry enough passengers to more than cover its operating expenses -- but not its capital cost of $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion.

The consultants would set fares at double the commuter rail fare but no higher than Metroliner charges. At those rates, the consultants believe maglev would attract thousands of Washington-area travelers to BWI, far more than would ride between the two cities.

Although a case could be made for testing maglev on a longer, more heavily traveled route, the Baltimore-Washington leg would make sense. It's close to the capital and to officials who would be evaluating it. A 40-mile experiment is a lot cheaper than a 200-mile one. The spur to BWI would have immediate economic payback in the infusion of air travelers from Washington. If successful, it could be the first leg of a Northeast Corridor route.

All of this begs some questions. There are four possible alignments, two of them hugging the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Most of that is parkland, and the National Park Service is taking a dim view of using it. So will nature lovers concerned about proximity to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Safety issues -- like the effect of a rock on a windshield at 300 mph or of magnetism on its surroundings -- are not addressed. Projects this size seldom meet original estimates. Is maglev that much better than less speedy but still very fast trains that are already on the market? Will riders pay those fares to save perhaps 15 minutes?

Issues like these need to be more thoroughly aired before Congress can be expected to spend $1.3 billion on what is still a speculative project.

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