Maglev going too fast for some

Train: Magnetic levitation transportation has a way to go in Baltimore, but the long-discussed idea is getting a boost elsewhere.

March 24, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

BILL WITHUHN took his first and only ride on a magnetic levitation train in 1989 while visiting the test track of a prototype train in Germany.

The Smithsonian Institution's longtime transportation curator was impressed with the system, which uses magnetic fields to quietly propel cars along a friction-free rail at speeds nearing 300 mph.

"It was like an airplane on takeoff - without the rumble," he says. "Smooth as glass."

At the time of his visit, the train had undergone a decade of testing. Today, plans are under way to build one in the United States with Baltimore-Washington and Pittsburgh as finalists. That's 13 years after Withuhn's ride. Still, no maglev passenger train is in service anywhere, and a lot of controversy surrounds the proposals.

"From a technical perspective, I thought it was absolutely wonderful," Withuhn says. "But the question keeps coming up - if this is such a wonderful system, why hasn't one been built?"

Until recently, that has been the story of maglev: a fascinating idea whose time hasn't come.

But the past year has seen a jump-start in the idea, with one project near completion in China, and two more recently approved in Germany.

When the Chinese project is finished next year, a maglev train will travel on 19 miles of track between Shanghai and Pudong International Airport at speeds up to 270 mph - an eight-minute trip. The government is studying a plan that would extend the track to Beijing.

The German government abandoned plans last year for an ambitious, 180-mile project between Hamburg and Berlin, noting the cost. But it recently approved construction of two smaller projects: one linking Munich and its airport, the other connecting Dusseldorf and Dortmund.

In addition to the progress abroad, some, including Withuhn, believe that transportation fallout from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and deepening troubles for Amtrak could bolster the plan to build a maglev train in the United States.

Proponents for a maglev train here say it would cut the 40-mile trip between Camden Yards and Union Station in Washington to 16 minutes, from the current 34 minutes it takes Amtrak's Acela Express train or Metroliner from Penn Station to Washington. A specific route hasn't been chosen for the $3.8 billion project. But, under the plan, it would include a stop at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, would be funded substantially through private investment and would be in operation by 2010.

Planners predict 35,000 riders a day - mostly people traveling to and from the airport, and tourists boarding it for the experience, willing to pay $26.25 for a one-way ticket between the two cities. Between Baltimore and BWI, the one-way cost would be $6.90. Eventually, the line could be extended up and down the East Coast from Boston to Atlanta.

The Pittsburgh project proposes a 47-mile track connecting Pittsburgh International Airport to the city and its eastern suburbs.

Engineers for both projects are in the midst of environmental impact and route studies.

But the political waters ahead remain uncertain for any maglev project. Support for it grew out of the Clinton administration, and the Bush camp hasn't signaled its position.

"They've told us they have other priorities, sure, but can they really turn down something that is two-thirds privately funded?" says Henry Kay, director of planning for the Maryland Transit Administration. "Not really."

Momentum is building on both sides of the debate in Maryland. Residents in Linthicum staged protests recently objecting to the train's proposed route through their community. In Annapolis, legislators are considering a bill that would create a task force whose ultimate job would be the creation of a quasi-public, multistate authority to oversee the system.

Whatever maglev's future, the sentiments it provokes are rarely lukewarm.

Its critics consider it a pie-in-the-sky technology that is too expensive and will never work. Why spend all that money on a train to go that fast and only save 18 minutes from the time it takes now to get from Baltimore to Washington? Better, they argue to spend the money on improvements to the troubled Amtrak system.

Advocates say that besides the benefit of speed, maglev is environmentally clean and could be amazingly cheap to run because no contact is made between the train and track, so no wear.

"If a person's not solid on one side or the other, they usually know so little about it, they really don't have a clue," says Withuhn.

But perhaps the time finally is right for this technology, he says. Withuhn sees a historical parallel between maglev and the diesel locomotive.

For years, in the early 1920s and into the 1930s, engineers developed a series of diesel prototypes that attracted little interest from railroads except for a few small passenger lines. Then came Pearl Harbor and a tremendous demand for transportation of wartime materials.

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