Maglev is for dreamers, but what's wrong with dreaming?

Is existing rail system keeping best technology down?

August 22, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

Kevin C. Coates and I didn't exactly get off on the right foot.

The longtime advocate for Maglev — for magnetic levitation — train technology wrote that he found my column last week praising a book whose author favored another approach to high-speed rail "offensive." I wrote back that I found it offensive that he would be offended. He is, after all, executive director of the North American Maglev Transport Institute and ought to have a thicker skin.

Eventually, we got past snorting at each other like bull moose in mating season and had a civil exchange of ideas about Maglev technology versus incremental approaches to improved passenger rail service such as those championed by author James McCommons in his book "Waiting on a Train."

What set Coates off was my reference to proponents of Maglev as "dreamers." Sorry, at this point, it's a fair description.

After more than a decade of discussion, there are no Maglev systems even close to being built in the United States. In recent years, proponents of so-called "wheels on steel" solutions — essentially a souped-up version of today's technology such as the Japanese or European "bullet trains" — have been gaining traction at the expense of Maglev. Both technologies boast incredibly high speeds — 200-300 mph — compared with pokey Amtrak trains.

A Maglev line between Baltimore and Washington was a hot topic during the 1990s and had found a proponent in Mayor Martin O'Malley. But former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. shoved the idea into the freezer when he took office in 2003. And, as governor, O'Malley, recognizing the lack of support in the electorate and the General Assembly, has left it there.

There's nothing wrong with being a dreamer, however. This country has been built by people who thought beyond the status quo and who weren't satisfied with existing technologies.

"It all boils down to money and political will," Coates wrote me. "The German high-speed Maglev technology now costs the same or even less to build than traditional high-speed rail. What's more, it costs one-third as much to operate and maintain — the very key to sustainable (i.e., profitable) operations."

For the sake of argument, let's grant Coates' premise that Maglev — in which trains powered by electromagnets float over a guideway — is a superior technology. That's not a big stretch. Even proponents of more conventional solutions tend to fault Maglev's cost rather than question the technology itself.

If the United States still had an open frontier, it would be a no-brainer to build the best possible surface rail transportation system to connect cities fewer than 500 miles apart. Over relatively short distances, rail makes a lot more sense than either private cars or air travel. There's no reason Maglev wouldn't be able to compete on its merits.

But the frontier has been closed in this country for a long time — especially in crowded areas such as the Northeast corridor. We have a lot of existing rail infrastructure — much of it decrepit and woefully inefficient — occupying right-of-way that is, for now, the only game in town. Maglev can be the best technology in the world, but without a strip of land a few yards wide and hundreds of miles long, it's no more than a fantasy.

High-speed variations on existing technologies that could potentially share the existing right-of-way have a huge advantage. Such technologies are also far less likely to meet resistance from entrenched incumbents than upstarts that might upset the status quo.

Those are among the reasons why a lot of practical people, such as McCommons, think the way to improve high-speed rail in the United States is for governments to work with the existing freight and passenger rail companies to make gradual improvements.

Coates has reason to find something offensive in that. Ideally, old infrastructure would not be an insurmountable barrier to newer and better technologies. National interest would trump private interest. Long-term considerations would mean more than the up-front price tag.

"For mechanically-based systems like high-speed rail, the higher the speeds, the higher the vehicle and track maintenance costs," Coates wrote. "In fact, at speeds over 185 mph, maintenance costs begin to rise exponentially — unless the system is a maglev system. With a maglev system, which is an electronics-based technology, not mechanically-based, maintenance costs, regardless of speed, tend to remain flat."

Some countries are better positioned to take the long view. Central governments are stronger. Eminent domain meets less resistance. NIMBY (not in my backyard) concerns are brushed aside.

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