Maglev train idea for Northeast resurfaces

Proposed line would start with D.C.-Baltimore segment

November 02, 2013|Michael Dresser and Kevin Rector | The Baltimore Sun

Maglev is back, tantalizing Marylanders with the promise of speeds that could whisk train passengers from Baltimore to Washington in 15 minutes.

What is billed as a new generation of magnetic levitation technology is at the heart of the latest proposal, the first step in what would eventually be a line taking passengers from Washington to New York in 60 minutes at a cruising speed of 311 mph.

The proposal resurrects a technology that seemed to be the next big thing in the late 1990s and early 2000s before fizzling out amid concerns over its cost, the difficulty of putting together a suitable route and its potential effect on neighbors.

Many of those hurdles remain, but an investment group headed by a former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party and backed by former politicians of both parties is pushing a new version of maglev. The group is seeking financial, community and political support for a project called TNEM — for The Northeast Maglev.

“The technology itself has progressed,” Wayne Rogers, chairman of TNEM and a former state Democratic chairman, said in a presentation to The Baltimore Sun this week. “We as Americans never picked up on it.”

Supporters of the maglev concept have long seen it as a game-changer for Baltimore, bringing the city closer to the capital and making it a more attractive place for businesses that deal with the federal government to locate. The latest proposal includes stops in the city and at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Whether the United States will embrace the project any more warmly than it did in the early 2000s, when then-Mayor Martin O’Malley and others were intrigued by the prospect, is debatable. Even if the technology operates superbly, the project faces numerous obstacles.

Rogers, chairman of the Synergics energy company in Annapolis, estimated that building the Baltimore-D.C. segment alone would require “somewhere north of $10 billion.” But the extensive tunneling that would put more than 30 of its roughly 40 miles underground, avoiding Linthicum and other neighborhoods affected by an earlier plan, could drive the cost higher. By Rogers’ own estimates, tunneling costs alone could reach $4.5 billion to $6 billion.

Unlike past proposals, the TNEM group says it can count on financing from a Japanese government bank, reflecting Tokyo’s eagerness to launch the new superconducting maglev technology — developed by Japan Central Railroad — in the U.S. Northeast Corridor.

The TNEM group pointed to a September speech by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the New York Stock Exchange in which he praised the “dream technology” of superconducting magnetic levitation — now being tested on a short segment of a Tokyo-Nagoya line that is projected to be completed by 2027. Abe said he presented President Barack Obama with a proposal for a line between Washington and Baltimore.

Yoshiro Taguchi, transportation attache at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, confirmed that such an offer was made in February. He said Abe offered Obama the use of the technology and “substantial financial support” — with no amount specified — for a Washington-Baltimore line. Japan is hoping that development of the Washington-Baltimore segment would entice investors to finance the rest of the line between Baltimore and New York, Rogers said.

There’s little mystery to maglev’s appeal. Artist renderings show a sleek, bullet-like system that uses magnetic forces to let trains glide on a cushion of air, with none of the friction caused when steel wheels meet rails. Speeds are projected at more than three times those of Amtrak’s Acela train, currently the nation’s fastest.

But a ticket could carry Acela-like costs. The investment group does not have a precise estimate of the fare, but one representative said it would be a little more than the cost of an Acela ticket. A low-end round-trip ticket on Acela now costs $84 between Washington and Baltimore and more than $330 between Washington and New York.

Japan Central has had an 11-mile maglev test track open since 1996 and has reported reaching speeds as high as 361 mph. The government has given the railroad approval to build a 320-mile commercial line between Tokyo and Osaka at a cost estimated at $112 billion.

The TNEM group is counting on an undetermined amount of financial help from the federal government but none from the state, Rogers said. The hope of federal funding poses a challenge on Capitol Hill, where Congress has shown little inclination to spend on big infrastructure projects — especially those involving intercity rail.

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