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.
The investment group has attracted the support of some big names. Today, TNEM will announce a bipartisan advisory board led by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The board will include three former governors of Northeast corridor states — Republicans George Pataki of New York and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey and Democrat Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania — and two former U.S. secretaries of transportation, Democrat Rodney Slater and Republican Mary Peters. Kevin Plank, founder of Baltimore-based UnderArmour, is also on the list.
The group is not disclosing the identities of its American investors except for Rogers and vice chairman D. Jeffrey Hirschberg, a corporate lawyer in Washington.
Unlike conventional high-speed rail, the prevailing technology in most of the developed world, superconducting maglev represents a complete break from old ways. That's part of the problem. It could make no use of existing right-of-ways or other infrastructure. Critics point out that if it were built in stages, northbound riders could face years during which they could go no farther than Baltimore without having to switch to an Amtrak train, negating any benefits of the increased speed.
"The only way the maglev would make sense is to build it from D.C. to New York all in one shot,' said Andrew Kunz, president of the US High Speed Rail Association, which backs a more conventional technology in use around the world now. "And that'll never happen because it's outrageously expensive and nobody will spend the money on it."
Kunz said Amtrak's estimated cost of a conventional high-speed rail system it wants to build between Washington to New York is $110 billion to $120 billion. Maglev, he said, costs five times more per mile than that technology— even before of the cost of the extensive tunneling envisioned in the TNEM plan.
Maryland flirted with maglev technology a decade ago, conducting detailed studies that put the cost of a Baltimore-Washington line at $3.7 billion in 2003. That was for a plan using a previous generation of technology along with much less extensive tunneling.
John Harding, the U.S. Department of Transportation's last chief maglev scientist, retired in 2004 and now lives in California. He remembers assessing the feasibility of a series of maglev proposals all across the country. None came to fruition. The Baltimore-Washington project ultimately was rejected for reasons from a curvy right of way to low passenger projections, he said.
The top speed of the train in the proposal, which followed existing rail right-of-ways, was 240 mph, but "because of the curves, the average speed, God, it was pretty terrible," closer to 150 mph, Harding said.
"What was really killing the Baltimore-Washington design was the curves, because they were following, pretty much adhering to, the present right-of-way, and that was a right-of-way that was designed in the 1800s," Harding said.
He said the current proposal to build most of the line along a straight shot underground "solves that problem, but at great cost."
Financial evaluations for Baltimore-Washington maglev never showed "enough traffic to pay off the cost of construction in any reasonable amount of time with a reasonable fee," Harding said, and that was building the line above ground.
But maglev still has longtime fans in Baltimore. Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, said a maglev line to Washington would be a major boost for the city.
"I can't think of any other public expenditure that would have nearly the effect that would have," he said.