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.

 Shanghai Maglev Train
Shanghai Maglev Train

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.

3 COMMENTS

  1. It’s true that the price of the maglev demonstration line in Shanghai is not a good example to estimate potential construction costs, since one-time facility expenditures had to be made for several things: a command and control center; the first-ever manufacturing facility for high-precision concrete guideway beam fabrication; and a dedicated maintenance facility. Such expenditures helped skew initial costs to seem higher than more conventional systems.

    Jakub raises a great point about maglev routes being cheaper to build in hilly land, where wheel-on-rail routes need more tunnels and bridges. Some years ago, the UK Ultraspeed project in Great Britain found that Transrapid-style maglev could cost as much as 50 percent less than TGV-style wheel-on-rail while providing superior performance using a smaller vehicle fleet. And it turns out that maglev is estimated to only be about 5 to 10 percent more expensive on flat land.

    I have ridden the Transrapid in Germany and Shanghai as well as the Japanese maglev in Yamanashi – both systems are unbelievable smooth and fast, but each represents a different riding experience, as Jakub suggests. The Transrapid passenger compartment is open and airy, with large windows, while the Japanese compartment is smaller in cross-section and more closed-in feeling, with porthole-type windows. Totally different experiences.

    Here in the USA we have to choose how we want to enter the world of high-speed intercity travel. The Japanese are offering us a path forward with their superconducting maglev, while the Germans have all but disappeared from the national scene. It’s not clear how the situation will unfold, but certainly luck will be a factor.

  2. The price of the route built in Shanghai is not a good example to see the construction costs – due to extreme conditions (Shangai has very unstable terrain), the costs have climbed very high. Maglev routes are cheaper to build in hilly land, where wheel-on-rail routes need more tunnels, bridges and other constructions, but is more expensive at flat land. It is, of course, very nice offer from Japan, to fund half of the first section of the route – they obviously don’t want their technology to end up like german Transrapid (forgotten, with just one route) and they realise, that good experience with their maglev can push forward other projects. And the will for using different maglev type will be dropping with the amount of connected cities, because Japan and German maglev systems are incompatible. BUT, if you see the specifications of both systems, the Transrapid system is much more suitable for USA. The track construction of german transrapid is much easier and cheaper, needs less land for construction and offers much more space inside of the vehicles. Japanese maglevs are very much adapted to lower the air drag but it also means, that the head cars can carry almost no passengers and it looks much more like an aircraft (round tube with 2+2 seats and small round windows). Transrapid system offers even 3+3 seats, large windows and all the train inner space is used for seats or driver’s cabs. USA should decide if half of the price for one short route section can worth many more extremely expensive sections of the same system in the future. I am from Europe, here have all maglev projets been aborted, because we already have many high-speed rail routes built and also some political (but not practical) decisions have been made. But in US, you have got great oportunity to enter the world of high speed with tools of 21st century. I wish maglev supporters in USA luck.

  3. Good article, Mike. Speaking as a former defense/aerospace employee in the federal government and now a 27-year proponent of maglev technology for the U.S., I know the road ahead is bumpy, but the private company you mention, TNEM, is doing things the right way in offering to underwrite the Japanese high-speed maglev’s first leg to Baltimore. Here’s hoping we can close the deal and get the future underway in the Northeast Corridor.

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