Now is the perfect time for the century old electrified train line to get a magnetic face lift
The Northeast Corridor is a widely known electrified railway line in the Northeastern United States and is owned primarily by Amtrak, a publicly funded railroad service. Every year this railroad line is responsible for transporting more than 11 million people from Boston through New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.
A report from the Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Operations Advisory Commission (NEC Commission) last year concluded that the Corridor “is a critical national asset, an economic engine for the U.S., and contributes about $50 billion a year to the national economy.”
Despite its economic importance and the fact that it’s been underfunded for years, it didn’t stop the Republican controlled House Appropriations Committee from voting to cut funding to the public-sector rail company by 18%. Less than 24 hours after one of its trains derailed, killing seven, I might add.
“Infrastructure is the most important thing you never think about” so the saying goes. That might explain why there was little coverage and even less backlash to the defunding attempt in the wake of such a tragedy. A disaster which could have been easily avoided with the proper funding.
Since Republicans keep going on the offensive, the best thing for us progressives to do is fight fire with fire, or in this case magnetic levitation. Just imagine going from Boston to Washington, a near eight hour drive, in just two hours or New York to Washington in one hour.
Maglev (magnetic levitation) trains are the future, but the United States is nowhere to be seen when implementing its use. In fact, despite decades of research, there are only two commercial maglev transport systems in operation, with two others under construction. All four of them can be found in Asia (Japan, China & South Korea.)
A maglev train is a vehicle that travels along a guide-way using magnets to create both lift and propulsion, thereby reducing friction and allowing for higher speeds. Maglev trains therefore move more smoothly and more quietly than wheeled mass transit systems. They are also comparatively unaffected by weather.
While a maglev train costs much more to build ($1.2 billion for the Shanghai System for instance), the maintenance costs are significantly reduced compared to conventional rail. High-speed wheeled trains and tracks suffer from wear and tear from friction while maglevs do not bump and grind.
The power needed for levitation is typically not a large percentage of its overall energy consumption. Most goes to overcome drag, as with other high-speed transport. There is also further potential down the road with systems that might allow maglev trains to attain even higher speeds using vacuum tubes.
As it stands now the Shanghai Maglev Train operating in China has a top speed of 430km/h (267miles/h). Not bad considering it was the first maglev train on the planet back in 2004. Still, even with ten year old technology, an ultra-smooth ride from New York to Washington D.C. would seem faster than a plane trip.
For those who think maglevs in the United States are nothing more than a pipe dream, think again. Private companies like “the Northeast Maglev” with the help of Central Japan Railway (who have pledged to Obama to fund half the $10 billion needed) are actively seeking “a first leg” project within the Northeast Corridor that would link Washington to Baltimore. The ultimate goal however is to see a maglev line from Washington to New York which would cost $100 billion plus. Too much for any company to take on.
What we should really be doing as a country however is reinventing Amtrak for the future. Amtrak’s current fastest trains top out at 150 mph in the Northeast Corridor, except they share the tracks with other railway operators and can rarely reach that speed.
For a country that spends trillions on wars ($1 trillion on the F-35 alone) and bank bailouts, you’d think a super high speed train to transport its own citizens safely isn’t asking too much. All we have to do is put more emphasis on upgrading our trains before our fighter jets.