Imagine traveling from downtown D.C. to BWI Airport in eight minutes or from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes. Considering how consistently terrible and unreliable commuting is in our region, such fast trips would seem possible in a fantasy world. For starters, 40 traffic-clogged miles separate the two cities; to cover that ground in 15 minutes would require some serious speed.
In another decade or so it could be reality.
In what may be the most ambitious initiative of his young administration, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is pursuing next-generation high speed rail through a partnership with the private sector and Japanese government.
Maryland would import the super conducting MagLev — magnetic levitation — technology now being developed in Japan to build the fastest rail line in the United States, leaving behind the 19th century steel-on-steel railroad construction and its enormous maintenance costs. As WAMU first reported in June, the state is applying for a federal grant to study MagLev, which requires a straight right-of-way to obtain its awesome speeds.
Maryland’s MagLev man
Over the course of his eight years at the Maryland Department of Transportation, Andy Dentamaro has had MagLev in his portfolio. But only recently was federal funding available to take a key step toward pursuing it.
By the end of summer Dentamaro expects to learn whether MDOT and the Maryland Economic Development Corporation will receive a $28 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration. The funding would support environmental studies to determine how to build and where to place the U-shaped guideway that will propel the magnetically-powered train. Dentamaro estimates about 65 percent of the D.C.-Baltimore line would travel through underground tunnels.
The Northeast Maglev, a Baltimore-based private company that has pursued the project since 2010 without success, has agreed to provide $7 million for the studies.
“First and foremost I think it is important to recognize that this is a private sector-led project. This is an economic development initiative to better connect D.C. and Baltimore,” said Dentamaro.
Maryland has been thinking about MagLev since the late 1990s after Congress created a program to be administered by FRA. The idea was to build a short line to demonstrate the technology’s effectiveness before building a long-distance, intercity corridor. FRA picked seven projects for further study including the Baltimore-Washington corridor, but the state legislature lost interest in 2004.
The Northeast Maglev approached Dentamaro’s office in 2010, but federal funding only became available again recently — three years after Pennsylvania terminated its MagLev program and returned the federal grant dollars.
“Maryland has looked at MagLev in the past and the new administration has come in with a renewed energy to see if we can deliver this project,” said Dentamaro. “This is the most innovative technology in the world. Super conducting magnetic levitation technology only exists in Japan right now.”
A trip to Japan inspires awe
During a 12-day trip to Asia in early June, Governor Hogan, his transportation secretary Pete Rahn, and The Northeast Maglev chief executive Wayne Rogers rode Japan’s demonstration line, which is expected to connect Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027. They came away convinced. Their train hit 314 miles per hour. In April, the train broke its own speed record, reaching 374 miles per hour for ten seconds on an experimental track in Yamanashi.
“The experience of riding on super-conducting MagLev was something that greatly exceeded my expectations,” said Secretary Rahn in an interview with WAMU 88.5. “It has to resemble the sense that people had when they rode on a 707 Boeing for the first time, going from prop planes to a jet.”
“It was amazing to me that this accelerated to 314 miles an hour in practically no time at all, and the ride was so smooth that you could have easily poured yourself a cup of coffee when standing in the middle of the aisle,” Rahn recalled.
Central Japan Railway Company, privately operated since 1987, is building out its MagLev line with profits from its famous bullet trains — shinkansen in Japanese — that have been running since 1964.
“It’s frustrating to me to see America fall further and further behind the rest of the world. For most of the American people, we don’t even really know how far behind on some of these issues we’ve fallen,” said Wayne Rogers, chief executive of The Northeast Maglev, in an interview in his new Baltimore office space.
MagLev as transformational
Rogers, 60, has an extensive background in renewable energy and engineering, and sees his project as the environmentally sound way to defeat congestion in the northeast corridor. Super conducting maglev technology uses a fraction of the power needed by the initial technology developed in Germany and used in Shanghai, China.
“This is a great opportunity to do a transformational project in our area,” Rogers said. “There are very few things you can do that are going to change the way people work, where they live, where they play. It is going to change lives in major ways.”
The key is the promise of saving time. If you know you can reach downtown D.C. from Baltimore in 15 minutes, you might place your headquarters in the latter city, for example, and make business trips to the Capitol in the same amount of time it would take to navigate a few city blocks.
Eventually The Northeast Maglev wants to build the line all the way to New York, making it possible to travel between D.C. and the largest city in the country in one hour. But just to connect to Baltimore (with a key station stop at BWI Airport) could take about 10 years and about $10 billion, including a $5 billion loan from the Bank of Japan.
“I think we really have to understand infrastructure is key to our economy. Our prosperity in the future is really tied to, what is our infrastructure like?” said Rogers, who estimates fares could cost $1 to $2 per mile at first.
Rogers said he is considering plans to build the line to WMATA’s Metro Center rail station in downtown D.C. instead of what may seem the obvious choice of Union Station. A Washington-New York MagLev line with eight station stops would help airlines dump inefficient flights, freeing gates and air space for more profitable long-haul flights, Rogers said.
MagLev proponents say U.S. should follow Asia
High- and low-speed MagLev lines exist in only three countries: Japan, China, and South Korea. Japan and China also have extensive steel-on-steel high speed rail.
Importing the next-generation technology to the U.S. would not be blocked by any technological problems, according to Kevin Coates, a MagLev consultant who has traveled many times to Japan and China.
“It’s not a technical issue. It’s a political issue,” said Coates.
That statement likely would not surprise many commuters in the Washington region, who have watched for decades as crucial transportation infrastructure projects slowly move from proposal to planning to design to construction, busting budgets and deadlines on the way.
One aspect of MagLev that is often overlooked, according to Coates, is its relatively low long-term maintenance costs. Too often, he argues, we obsess over initial construction costs but forget how much money it will take to maintain highways and steel-on-steel railroads and streetcars for decades to come.
“It’s maintenance!” said Coates. “All you have to do is look at YouTube video, NHK video, of high-speed rail maintenance in Japan, and you would be shocked at how much effort goes into keeping those trains in operation. The Japanese of all the countries in the world know how much it costs to keep high-speed trains running.”
MagLev trains, on the other hand, have only one moving part: the train.
“So if the most experienced high-speed rail operators in the world, the original bullet train — the Tokaido line running between Tokyo and Osaka — with 50 years of experience, are deciding to go with MagLev for their next shinkansen, then maybe we ought to be paying attention to that decision,” Coates