Donald Fry: It’s time to seriously consider maglev in NE rail planning


By Donald C. Fry

Two current developments at the Federal Railroad Administration and at Amtrak could have profound long-term impacts on the future of high-speed passenger transportation in our nation’s congested Northeast Corridor.

In February, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) launched a comprehensive planning effort to define, evaluate and prioritize future investments in the Northeast Corridor. Its purpose is to develop a framework for rail passenger capacity and service improvements through 2040.

The first part of the FRA study – a “scoping” period of public comment in conjunction with an environmental review process – ends on September 14.

Meanwhile, Amtrak recently released an updated report on its vision for the Northeast Corridor that projects $151 billion in needed infrastructure investment between now and 2040 to produce the “next generation” of high-speed rail in the corridor.

There is no question the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C., and Boston needs serious strategic attention when it comes to infrastructure for rail passenger service. But maybe we should consider new-tech alternatives such as maglev before leaping to the conclusion that high-speed rail is the best alternative for future travelers in the corridor.

The 457-mile Northeast Corridor is now home to 51 million people and its population is projected to grow to 58 million by 2040. It generates one fifth of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. It is one of the most heavily traveled rail corridors in the world, where intercity and commuter operations move more than 259 million passengers per year, according to the FRA.

When it comes to rail, the corridor “faces serious challenges, with century-old infrastructure, outdated technology and inadequate capacity to meet current or projected travel demand,” the FRA states on “NEC Future,” the agency’s Web site detailing the corridor’s long-range investment study and planning process. “With similar capacity issues on the region’s highways and some of the most congested airports in the nation, the Northeast’s economic future could be hampered by transportation constraints,” the FRA warns.

No one would argue with that assessment of the current state of rail infrastructure in the Northeast. But I’m among transportation observers who suggest that the specific nature of our region’s future rail infrastructure deserves more thought and scrutiny than simply to look at high-speed rail options, which appears to be the framework in which both the FRA and Amtrak are proceeding in their planning work.

Specifically, maglev advocates suggest that this is precisely the point in time when deploying maglev technology should be considered as an option.

Although the FRA process includes an “alternatives development” component, maglev advocates such as Abell Foundation president Robert C. Embry, Jr. are concerned that the technology – which is developed and in use overseas – will again be treated as a “side issue” and will not gain serious consideration in resolving the Northeast Corridor’s transportation challenges.

Here’s what Embry and the Greater Baltimore Committee, a leading transportation advocate in the state, are proposing to the FRA: conduct a side-by-side comparison of the costs and benefits of high-speed rail and maglev, which uses magnetic levitation to move passenger cars along a frictionless guideway at speeds of up to 300 miles per hour.

We believe such a study would find maglev has lower annual operating costs, primarily because the technology uses less energy; creates much less wear and tear on the system’s infrastructure, since the vehicle levitates above the guideway; and is capable of higher speeds with faster acceleration and deceleration.

The operating cost differential could entice private investors to participate in maglev development.

“The potential for profit is great enough to attract private investment,” Embry wrote in a recent letter to the FRA.

In this challenging fiscal era for governments, building transportation infrastructure improvements of the magnitude envisioned for the Northeast Corridor will almost certainly require significant private investment.

The federal government no longer has the capacity to take on huge public works projects with little state support.

But for the private sector to invest, there must be a fair return on that investment. The maglev technology, which costs less to operate and to maintain year after year, is the one most likely to induce investors to participate.

It’s worth noting that Amtrak’s plan to improve high-speed rail contemplates the construction of a separate track alignment for the new generation high-speed passenger trains, which raises a fair question. If we are to build separate infrastructure for high-speed transportation, why not consider building a maglev system instead?

In addition to reduced operating costs, a 300 mile-per-hour maglev system would deliver travel speeds significantly faster than any high-speed rail.

The Amtrak plan calls for eventual traveling times of 90 minutes between Washington and New York. A maglev system would cut the traveling time to less than an hour.

For many years, there has been a push to increase public/private partnerships in transportation. The Northeast Corridor, with the density of its population producing so much of the Gross Domestic Product for the entire country, is the textbook example of a location for such a partnership.

“Maglev is a superior technology and it is now time to deploy it in the corridor,” Embry wrote to Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, the FRA’s project manager.

This is the corridor where the nation’s railroads were born. This is where the introduction of a new innovative transportation option literally transformed our nation’s economic competitiveness and quality of life for almost 200 years since.

If there were ever an opportunity to introduce innovative, transformative transportation technology to catapult our corridor and nation into a new era of economic competitiveness, it seems to me this would be the time.

Planners and policy makers should give maglev technology serious consideration as they contemplate ways to deploy hundreds of billions of dollars into high-speed transportation infrastructure in the Northeast Corridor and elsewhere.