Levitation trains might Fly between Balto., D.C.

Area among choices for federal prototype

April 23, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

After a decade of lobbying by planners and politicians, the Baltimore-Washington corridor has emerged as a leading contender for the nation's first high-speed magnetic levitation train.

"Maglev" trains, which have been tested in Germany and Japan, rely on magnetic fields that float cars along guideways friction-free and at speeds of more than 300 mph -- a pace that would cut the length of a trip between Baltimore and Washington to 16 minutes.

Advocates describe them as environmentally clean, quiet and safe; undeterred in bad weather; and a logical next step to 21st-century transportation. The Concorde of trains, a maglev in Japan set a speed record of 343 mph last week.

"It's like flying on the ground," said Phyllis Wilkins of the Baltimore Development Corp., who has ridden the train on a test loop in Germany. "There's no drone from an engine.

"You can stand and walk in the aisles and not even notice that you're going 250 mph, unlike trains that knock from side to side."

Skeptics say maglev is a pie-in-the-sky idea with a price tag to match.

"I think the technology works very well, but it's never really gotten off the ground anywhere because it's so enormously expensive to build," said David Fuscus of the Air Transport Association.

House members impressed

A 1991 congressional plan to fund a prototype died when support faltered. But in the past few years, key House members have ridden test trains abroad and been impressed.

So last year Congress voted for a plan that could have a prototype train operating in the United States by 2006.

Much of the attention is on a possible route between Camden Yards in Baltimore and Union Station in Washington.

"What I'm hearing is that Baltimore-Washington is the leading corridor among all the corridors they're looking at," said Rob Kiernan of Virginia-based Strategic Insight, a planner who assisted in Maryland's bid for the funds.

Among applicants from 10 states, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) is certain to be among a few chosen to share $12 million Congress has set aside to develop comprehensive plans, according to transportation officials. That decision will be announced in the next few weeks.

Proposals for lines in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Denver and southern California also are under review.

But among the assets said to be giving Baltimore-Washington an edge: The route's relatively short, 40-mile span; its proximity to the congressmen and senators who will decide maglev's fate; the existing rights-of-way between the two cities -- Interstate 95, Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Amtrak route -- which would reduce expense; and a study suggesting that a maglev train here would be profitable.

The deciding factor could be the market of potential riders.

"Everyone knows the Washington-to-New York corridor is the most congested in the nation," said Kiernan.

Enthusiastic support

A senior transportation official acknowledged that Maryland is "in the front ranks."

"There seems to be a political will to do something there," said the official, who asked not to be named. "MDOT seems to be enthusiastically supporting this thing. The people in Baltimore think it's going to work.

"We're kind of thinking of it as the first segment of a northeast corridor line. I would see this ultimately as a replacement for high-speed rail in the northeast corridor."

Only last month, Amtrak announced plans for a high-speed rail line through the northeast corridor. The service, expected to open in October, will cut travel time between Baltimore and Boston by 2 1/2 hours.

"It's good they're buying new equipment and, yes, the service will be better, but it will not make the northeast corridor that much different," said Wilkins of the BDC. "Going 150 mph is not that much faster [than current trains]. To make a difference, to really compete with car and air travel, you have to go very fast."

Competition not an issue

She said possible competition with Amtrak is not an issue. By the time a maglev system could be fully developed in the northeast, Amtrak will have gotten its investment out of the new Acela train, she said.

Maglev has long been backed by a contingent of local engineers and developers, nonprofit groups and politicians, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

The trains work on a basic principle: Opposite magnetic poles attract and similar ones repel. Maglev uses powerful electromagnets to float and propel cars along guideways.

Because there is no contact between the car and the rail, the system is frictionless, without the sort of wear and tear that occurs between conventional train wheels and tracks.

Construction costs are comparable to highway costs but higher than building a standard train line.

The prototype would require about $1 billion in federal funds, plus $500 million in state, local and private commitments. The federal cost is roughly the same amount Congress approved for the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project.

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