'It can be done': Futuristic Japanese maglev train could revolutionize travel from DC to Baltimore, and beyond

'It can be done': Futuristic Japanese maglev train could revolutionize travel from DC to Baltimore, and beyond

TSURU, YAMANASHI, JAPAN — Two hours from Tokyo’s blinking neon center, the sleek white train shoots out of a mountain tunnel at nearly 311 mph — levitating about four inches above its guideway as it glides past the surrounding rice fields.

The train’s long aerodynamic nose and bold blue streaks, a contrast against the forested slopes, make it seem unreal, like a prop from a space film re-purposed as a rural amusement ride. But it is in fact the world’s fastest train, what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called “the crystallization of our most advanced technologies.”

The magnetic levitation, or “maglev,” train is so fast it draws exclamations from schoolchildren and retirees at a nearby exhibition center, who bemoan the blurriness of their photos. A few hundred feet down the mountain, it shakes the cinderblock walls of 91-year-old Moriyoshi Suzuki’s tidy family home. On board, where the liftoff feels like that of a jet taking wing, riders gape at a speedometer as the train tears through the region’s jagged topography.

The magnetic levitation or maglev train in Japan can reach 311 mph while floating above its test track. Backers who want to build a similar line in the U.S. say it could transport travelers from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes, and from Washington to New York in an hour.

“It was very comfortable,” said Megumi Kawamura, who won online lottery tickets to ride the 27-mile exhibition line with her husband, Kazuki, and their 3-year-old son.

“It was a lot faster than I imagined,” her husband said, drawing grins from officials with the Central Japan Railway Co., or JR Central, which developed the train.

The crowd-pleasing demonstration line was designed to test the technology, but also to deliver a message. The point, says Torkel Patterson, a former U.S. naval officer who serves on the railroad’s board of directors, “is that this is ready for prime time. It’s not just some technology that ‘could be’ someday.”

Indeed, after 50 years and billions of dollars in Japanese research and development, JR Central says its maglev train is ready for its big rollout — and not just in Japan, where the company has already begun an $80 billion project to extend the mountain test track into a 272-mile commercial line from Tokyo to Osaka by 2037.

Japan's Maglev train
An elevated guideway emerges from a tunnel above farmland. The maglev pushes a wave of air out of the tunnel that causes noise and vibrations, so a special hood is used to more gradually vent the air. Kevin Rector / Baltimore Sun

For nearly a decade, the company also has been working with a team of well-connected U.S. partners to lay the groundwork for a second maglev line along the Northeast Corridor, perhaps some day to Boston. In its first phase, they say, it could transport travelers from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes, and later from Washington to New York in an hour, with stops along the way at BWI Marshall Airport and Philadelphia, among others.

It’s a proposal with the potential to dramatically alter the lives of people up and down the corridor, but particularly those in post-industrial Baltimore, which has lost population for decades and struggles to hold onto an economic base beyond the universities and hospitals that anchor it. Developers and other business interests in the city eye the train as a potential shot in the arm, allowing them to someday pitch their properties as the D.C. suburbs.

Equally passionate are the train’s opponents, who see it as a perk for the wealthy that would do nothing to improve the clogged highways and dysfunctional mass transit systems that most central Maryland residents rely on. Maglev is a point of disagreement between friends and neighbors, and between political candidates. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan supports exploring the idea. Ben Jealous, Hogan’s Democratic challenger in the Nov. 6 election, adamantly opposes the project.

Maglev opponents
Barbara Jackson, a member of the Beacon Heights Civic Association, attends the rally at Veterans Memorial Park to oppose a maglev train in Maryland. Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun

As the Japanese maglev project has gotten off the ground, the U.S. proposal — long considered a half-cocked fantasy in Washington power circles and gritty Baltimore bars — has gained momentum, too.

In 2015, the Obama administration provided a $28 million grant for a study of the Baltimore to Washington proposal. Hogan’s administration agreed to sponsor Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail, a U.S. company that would operate the proposed line, through the federal review process.

And the state’s Public Service Commission granted BWRR rights to operate a railroad through the region using a long-dormant franchise that was abandoned in 1935 by the now-defunct Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railroad Co.

The number of potential routes for the new maglev line was narrowed to two earlier this year, and a more detailed analysis of the routes — both of which would be more than two-thirds tunnel and follow the Route 295 corridor — is due out this fall. Congress, meanwhile, is considering an additional $150 million appropriation for maglev projects, which BWRR officials say would be enough to push their proposal through engineering and possibly into construction.

From there, it would take another $10 billion to $15 billion, by BWRR’s calculations, to actually build the line from Washington to Baltimore — much of which would have to come from federal coffers, even if the project attracts massive private investment.

The project’s Japanese backers, at JR Central and in the Japanese government, know that gives sticker shock to many U.S. officials and taxpayers. But they are highly motivated to see the U.S. project move forward, in part because it would help them realize economies of scale in the production of their own line in Japan. And it would create a more global market for the maglev expertise they’ve developed within their workforce.

Map: Proposed routes for new maglev train

Both proposed maglev routes leave Baltimore near Westport and use tunnels for more than two-thirds of the distance to Washington. One runs along the eastern side of Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the other along the western side. The site of a station in each city is still unclear.

Caroline Pate/Baltimore Sun Graphic
Caroline Pate/Baltimore Sun Graphic
Caroline Pate/Baltimore Sun Graphic

To soften the potential financial pain, JR Central — which had more than $12 billion in operating revenues in 2017 from its existing Japanese rail business — has offered to waive licensing fees for BWRR’s use of its technology. It has also promised to assist the Maryland company in securing billions of dollars in low-interest Japanese loans to float as much as half the construction costs.

“We are prepared to make an all-out effort to support them from a technology point of view,” said Shun-ichi Kosuge, JR Central’s executive vice president.

Shun-ichi Kosuge
Shun-ichi Kosuge, JR Central’s executive vice president, said the Japanese railroad company is “prepared to make an all-out effort” to support the proposal to bring the company’s maglev train technology to the United States. Kevin Rector / Baltimore Sun

With the Japanese support, a mix of additional private investments and billions in grants and loans from the U.S. government, BWRR officials say they can reach full financing. If all goes well, they say, they could start construction on the Washington-to-Baltimore leg as early as 2020 and potentially open it by 2027, the same year the first leg of the Japanese line is to open.

They contend the benefits of the rail line warrant the needed federal support.

Backers say the train would ease highway congestion, free up airspace, cut down on lost hours and increase American productivity. They say it would revitalize post-industrial cities like Baltimore, reduce carbon emissions from cars and planes, provide a new industry for unionized labor, and make the U.S. a global leader in high-speed rail. They say construction and operation of the line would create more than 200,000 jobs.

More ominously, they argue that it is necessary to help prevent almost-certain economic stagnation between Washington and New York in coming years if nothing is done to alleviate growing congestion.

“It’s a big investment. It’s a lot of money. But the idea is to shrink the geography,” Patterson said. “It’s about transformation, not transportation.”

It’s about transformation, not transportation.

Torkel Patterson, a former U.S. naval officer who serves on the railroad’s board of directors

Critics of the proposal — and there are many — say proponents vastly underestimate its many costs, and overstate its benefits. They say a maglev line will disrupt neighborhoods and communities, making them less safe and less desirable places to live. The train will blow through their towns, they say, without stopping or providing any local benefits. They fear it will fail to attract sufficient ridership, and that BWRR will have to be bailed out by taxpayers.

They argue that the massive undertaking likely would require billions more in federal backing than BWRR currently estimates. And they question the very premise of building a 40-mile train line for $15 billion — enough money to pay for thousands of miles of new highways, for example, or the entire Baltimore schools budget for more than a decade.

One citizens group launched a petition to halt the project, calling it a “boondoggle” and attracting nearly 1,800 signatures.

“We don’t see how the hell they’re going to generate enough revenue to cover the costs,” said Dan Woomer, a 66-year-old Linthicum resident and a member of the group.

“Not only is it, ‘You're going to disturb my backyard,’ but even more importantly, we feel it is a project that is not going to benefit the local community,” said Steve Skolnik, president of Greenbelt Homes, a historic cooperative in one potential path of the train.

Keisha Allen
Keisha Allen, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association in Baltimore. Ulysses Munoz / Baltimore Sun

“It’s scary,” said Keisha Allen, 43, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association in Baltimore, who fears being displaced by the project. “I’m waiting for the shoe to drop, that it’s going to be something bad, and that we’ll have to find an attorney — like we have the money for that.”

Officials at BWRR say they appreciate community concerns and will continue working to alleviate them as the federal review moves forward. But they also assert that their plan is financially sound, and that community disruptions will be minimal in comparison to the overall benefits to the region. They note that much of the train’s path would be 10 stories underground.

Wayne Rogers, the former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who is BWRR’s chairman and CEO, says the project’s costs are manageable with the right financing structure on the front end. He insists the company does not need — and doesn’t plan to ask for — any ongoing government subsidies to offset future operating costs, unlike existing mass transit in the region.

Let’s take their train, take the advantage of all of that, lift it up, bring it into our corridor, and really transform everything. It can be done.

Wayne Rogers, the former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who is BWRR’s chairman and CEO

The U.S. would be foolish not to take advantage of five decades of Japanese development and accept JR Central’s generous help, he says — and before the Northeast stalls out.

“Let’s take their train, take the advantage of all of that, lift it up, bring it into our corridor, and really transform everything,” Rogers said. “It can be done.”

3.9 inches off the ground

It’s the stuff of science fiction.

When cooled to minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, a titanium alloy becomes a powerful super-magnet. Built into a train, such magnets interact with others in the walls of a guideway — producing forces so strong they not only propel the train forward at record-breaking speed, but keep it perfectly centered along its track and 3.9 inches off the ground.

It will never derail, railroad officials say — even in the event of an earthquake, and even if power is cut to the system.

Riding the maglev doesn’t diminish its otherworldliness. When the train rumbles to life, starts to move and hits about 70 mph, you can feel it suddenly lose touch with the ground as the magnets work their magic. The speed quickly doubles, then triples, then quadruples.

Meanwhile, the fastest train in the U.S. is the Acela Express, which tops out at 150 mph and runs significantly slower along much of its track due to curves, older infrastructure and other passenger and freight traffic along its shared right of way.

Graphic: How maglev works

Maglev technology uses powerful magnets to lift, center and propel the train along a guideway. The magnets — made with a titanium alloy cooled to minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit — are built into the train. They interact with other magnets in the guideway walls.


Magnetic forces between the train and the guideway keep the train centered and 3.9 inches off the ground. They also propel the train forward.

The construction of a Northeast maglev train operating at 311 mph would immediately catapult the U.S. to the cutting edge of rail travel, surpassing industry leaders in Europe and China. And because the U.S. is so far behind at the moment, Rogers believes the leap would not just be monumental, but revolutionary — comparing it to villages in developing countries that never had landline phone service suddenly getting cellphones.

“We can go right from having no high-speed rail to having the fastest train in the world,” he says. “We have to do something today if we want to solve not only the problems of today, but the problems of tomorrow.”

Those problems are clear. The Northeast Corridor is “big and getting bigger,” Rogers says, set to grow from 51 million people now to 58 million by 2040. It is already defined by congestion, with half of the worst highway bottlenecks and half of all air delays in the country, he says.

Auto, air and rail traffic in the region are projected to grow along with the population. No major projects are in the works to alleviate the associated slowdowns.

The maglev would provide immediate relief, its backers say. According to a commercial viability study conducted by BWRR, the first stretch of the line could attract more than 13 percent of the estimated 117 million trips per year currently made between Baltimore and Washington — two-thirds of which would come off area roads.

Wayne L. Rogers, President & CEO of Northeast Maglev, wants to bring high speed trains to the country's northeast corridor.

Rogers said fares will depend on the amount of money provided by the federal government on the front end, and on demand for the service once it begins. But he predicted they would be competitive with fares between Baltimore and Washington on Acela, which generally range between $50 and $100, depending on time and class of ticket.

The system would be capable of running trains every five minutes, carrying up to a thousand passengers per train, Rogers said. Frequent service — a proven selling point of Japan’s popular Shinkansen trains — would be a top priority.

“If you have frequency, people will mode-shift,” Patterson says. “The frequency of service makes people think, ‘Let’s just take the train.’ ”

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A major criticism of the proposal is that it won’t be affordable for everyday commuters, who rely on mass transit the most. Rogers said the company is considering a special fare for such riders, but hasn't made any decisions. He also said officials are looking for ways to work with airlines.

The two alignments shortlisted under the ongoing National Environmental Policy Act review include just one stop between Washington and Baltimore, beneath BWI Marshall Airport. The idea is that a traveler could fly into BWI, grab her bags, go down an escalator to a maglev station and be in D.C., Wilmington or Philadelphia in a matter of minutes. Airlines with gate capacity in Baltimore but not in those other cities might be interested in selling that combination of travel, Rogers says.

The Northeast, he says, with its many large cities and airports along a relatively short corridor, is “perfect for a high-speed rail solution.”

‘For sure I will use it’

Time is money. So Toru Hiroishi, an IT consultant in his early 40s, already relies on Japan’s super-high-speed Shinkansen “bullet” trains to visit far-flung customers.

Shinkansen bullet train
A Shinkansen bullet train arrives at a station. The trains are common and heavily used across Japan. Kevin Rector / Baltimore Sun
Shinkansen bullet train
Shinkansen bullet train riders walk past a large advertisement for the maglev train at Shinagawa Station in Tokyo. Kevin Rector / Baltimore Sun

He gets from Toyko to Osaka — about 320 miles, roughly the distance from Baltimore to Providence, R.I. — in just 2 ½ hours. But the planned maglev line between the cities will cut his travel time to Osaka in half.

“For sure I will use it,” Hiroishi said as he waited one evening for a Shinkansen train back to Tokyo after a meeting in Osaka. “Even if it’s expensive, it’s less time consuming, and I can use that time to meet with as many customers as possible.”

In the small town of Nakatsugawa, the promise of a new maglev station is welcomed by Yuki Watanabe, a travel agent whose small office is just across the parking lot from the town’s existing regional train station. Small and squat, the station sits near a dilapidated hotel that is slated for demolition. The maglev could come here within a decade as the first leg of the line is built.

Watanabe’s customers are mostly locals going elsewhere for holiday. He wonders if, once the maglev is built, visitors arriving in Nakatsugawa on the new train will buy trips to the nearby towns of Magome and Tsumago, outposts along the ancient road between Tokyo and Kyoto that are now tourist attractions.

“This is a story of 10 years from now,” he says, “but this is a business chance.”

Up the mountain in Magome, 74-year-old shopkeeper Tomoko Watanabe wears a shirt that reads, in English, “Develop a nonchalant attitude.” She, too, wonders what the maglev train will bring.

“If the visitors increase, then it will be nicer here,” she said. “Even if I’m not here, it will be nicer for the next person.”

It wasn’t long ago that, with a downturn in the economy and in visitors, it became too difficult to pay someone to tend her shop, which she inherited from her parents. So now she stays here to do it herself, seeing her husband on the weekends when he travels from their home in Nagoya. She wonders if the train could ease that arrangement, or increase business enough to let her hire again.

Regardless of the financial impact, everyone she knows is intrigued by the faster connection with Tokyo, about 200 miles away. An 88-year-old relative told her that, if she lives to see the maglev, she has her mind set on “Ginbura,” or window shopping in Tokyo’s famed Ginza shopping district.

“I think everybody has dreams like that,” Watanabe said.

In the U.S., the Northeast maglev proposal has won lots of similar support, including from regular commuters along the corridor, the business community, and some people who live along the proposed route.

Robert Snyder, 62, is a retired Prince George’s County elementary art teacher who has lived for 30 years in the Greenbelt cooperative, 1,600 homes built during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Snyder’s home is close to where the western maglev alignment would pass through the community. He is a big supporter of the project, and says there are others like him whose voices are being drowned out by the project’s opponents, who are louder.

He said he believes such a massive project would be in keeping with the New Deal ethos that inspired Greenbelt; help the U.S. stay competitive with countries like Japan, China and those in Europe; create good science, technology, engineering and math jobs for the next generation; and help move the country away from diesel and other fossil fuels and toward a greener future — especially as the percentage of electricity derived from renewable energy sources like wind and solar increases.

He understands that the cooperative wants to protect its historic character, but says it shouldn’t “stay in the past, like we’re a living museum.”

Milena Rodban, a 32-year-old geopolitical risk consultant, lives in Brooklandville north of Baltimore and commutes to Washington a couple of times a week for work and to visit family and friends. She usually takes MARC or Amtrak trains between Penn Station and Union Station, but finds them slow and unreliable. She would love for the maglev to be built.

With reasonable fares, she said, the maglev could inspire people across the Washington area to consider living or opening businesses in cheaper Baltimore.

In Rodban’s view, building the train also makes geopolitical sense, as it would benefit both the U.S. and Japan. “They’ve done all of the hard work in developing and testing this, and they are really the experts. This would be a big symbolic measure for us to be able to work with them.”

Whether I end up losing a house or not, I’m still excited to see this thing built.

Doug Wise, 43, owns four homes in Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood

Doug Wise, 43, owns four homes — one of which he lives in — in Baltimore’s Westport neighborhood, one of the locations being considered for the Baltimore maglev station. He believes that, if the project moves forward, it would benefit the area and the entire East Coast, even if it forces him and his neighbors to give up their homes through eminent domain.

“Whether I end up losing a house or not, I’m still excited to see this thing built. Because if we can get this one built, maybe we can get more built, up and down the coast,” he said. “I’m interested in the technology and hope that it can do something good for the neighborhood.”

Of course, not everyone supports the maglev, in Japan or in the U.S.

‘A negative legacy’

All along the planned Japanese maglev route and the proposed U.S. line, residents are fighting to stop the projects or at least force concessions from the railroads — for a variety of reasons.

Yasuo Sekijima, an attorney for 738 residents suing to halt the Japanese project, says his clients believe neither the government nor JR Central has properly considered safety issues, environmental threats or the potential lack of profitability as Japan’s population shrinks — from 127 million in 2015 to 88 million by 2065, according to one national projection.

Sekijima said his clients are concerned that the project’s route cuts across fault lines and will be vulnerable to earthquakes. They think planned tunnels deep below the mountains will make emergency evacuations — including in the event of a terrorist attack — nearly impossible. They believe the tunnels will negatively impact ground water and endanger their drinking supply.

And they believe JR Central officials have been “hiding the truth about their plans.” He hopes the lawsuit at least forces more information into the open.

Maglev opponents
Teruo Kawamura, a retired professor and the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit to halt the Japanese maglev project, said he was dismayed when he began to research the impacts of the existing Yamanashi test line on the surrounding environment. Naomi Schanen / For The Baltimore Sun

Teruo Kawamura, the lead plaintiff, is a retired professor who taught environmental issues through literature at Keio University. One recent afternoon, he stood beneath a piece of the Yamanashi test track stretching above peach orchards, pointing to a cement channel full of rolling water.

This once was a tiny dirt stream, he said, but when JR Central tunneled into the nearby mountains, it changed the way ground water moved. Suddenly, much more water was feeding into the little stream, and far less into a nearby river. JR Central had to redirect the stream to send water back to the river. He fears such changes will be repeated all along the route.

“It is highly possible that it will leave a negative legacy for future generations,” he said.

Back in Nakatsugawa, a woman in her 80s, who asked not to be named for fear of making herself a target, said she has been told by JR Central and government officials that her longtime home near the existing train station is in the path of the maglev line, and will have to be demolished.

She has been told she will be compensated, but that’s little consolation. Her home, where she’s lived for more than 50 years, is in a central location that she likes, she said. She and her family are trying to negotiate for a new location that is equally convenient.

Maglev opponents
A woman points to an area where the maglev train is supposed to pass through the mountain town of Nakatsugawa. She has been told her longtime home will be demolished, and is hoping she will be given an equally central location to live. Kevin Rector / Baltimore Sun

“We’re having to move from one of the best spots, so we’re requesting to be moved nearby.”

Hideki Kashida, a freelance journalist who has written two books on the maglev, said JR Central and the Japanese government have been acting as if construction is a foregone conclusion while ignoring major hurdles in its way — including the difficulty of obtaining all the land needed for construction of the line, stock yards and access roads.

Kashida says neither JR Central nor the government know where they will put all the waste soil from the tunneling, which he estimates would be enough to fill 50 stadiums. And, he said, they have failed to address community concerns about uranium deposits in areas where tunnels are to be built, which concerns people, particularly in Gifu Prefecture, where miners exposed to uranium years ago developed lung cancer.

“People don’t want this near their village,” he said.

A diverse coalition of residents who live along the U.S. route have many similar concerns.

Opponents of a proposed magnetic levitation train in Maryland say it would make their communities less safe and less desirable places to live, and worry about a range of impacts from noise to vibration to electromagnetic forces.

Dennis Brady, 64, is a Bowie resident who helped form the grassroots Citizens Against SC [Superconducting] Maglev. The Navy veteran, nuclear engineer and former Bowie city councilman says the group has members from across the region, not just along the two possible routes.

Many don’t believe BWRR’s claim that the train won’t use state funds, or that it will only cost $10 billion to $15 billion. Residents worry about the potential use of eminent domain to take properties for access roads, maintenance facilities and ventilation shafts all along the route.

They’re also concerned about the potential harm caused by vibration, noise and electromagnetic fields; the adverse impact on existing local trains that actually stop along the corridor; and problems from the tunneling, which they say could disrupt underground aquifers and expose residents to naturally occurring radon.

Skolnik, president of the Greenbelt cooperative, said his community supports mass transit over further growth of highways in the state. But they believe the maglev would serve only “a small number of rather high-end people.”

A better idea, he said, “would be to spend that money to improve the Amtrak lines so that the Acela trains could actually run at the speeds they are supposed to run at.”

Anay Hernandez, 29, one of about 30 people who recently protested in Bladensburg against the project, said information has not been shared well with the area’s large Spanish-speaking community. Her mother, Leticia Carino, 49, fears she will lose her house if the maglev is built.

Maglev opponents
Buttons in opposition to a maglev in Maryland sit on a table during a rally at Veterans Memorial Park. Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun

“We didn’t know anything about it until like a week ago,” Hernandez said. “My mom was like, ‘We have to do something. Let’s go to the protest.’ ”

Allen, president of the Westport group, said BWRR plans that draw a big circle around her neighborhood as a possible site for a maglev station are “frightening” — especially given Baltimore’s history of black communities’ being destroyed when major infrastructure projects are built.

She said she would welcome the maglev if it were built on the vacant waterfront in Westport, didn’t displace black families and raised local home values. But she recalls family members’ being forced out of their homes when a never-finished highway was built through the middle of West Baltimore years ago.

“This crap has got to stop where [developers say], ‘We’re not going to tell you anything until we have something to offer you,’ and that’s basically a pink slip and some chump change telling us to go find somewhere else to live,” Allen said. “That’s a bad habit in Baltimore.”

‘We’ve looked at all of these things’

Officials with JR Central, BWRR and governments in both countries say many of the concerns voiced by opponents are overblown or misplaced.

Kosuge, JR Central’s vice president, said every big rail project faces local opposition, but most Japanese residents will benefit from the shorter travel times between Tokyo and Osaka. He also said JR Central is “not ignoring” those who live close to the track and have concerns. It has developed solutions around ground water issues, noise, vibrations and electromagnetic concerns — which he said are all overstated.

Officials with JR Central note that the company has been studying the project for years alongside Japan’s central government, which has invested heavily in the rail line.

After a 3½ -year environmental study, the railroad developed measures to prevent damage to underground water systems. Its officials say they are addressing concerns about uranium deposits and waste soil, and conducting “various investigations to ensure that we are completely prepared, both in terms of our equipment and our operational systems, for all eventualities.”

Japan's Maglev train
An older model maglev train is seen on the experimental track in Yamanashi. Japan's state-of-the-art maglev train set a world speed record on April 21, 2015 in a test run near Mount Fuji, clocking more than 600 kilometers, or 373 mph. Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

Some residents near the Yamanashi test track say the company has negotiated with them in good faith to find solutions to problems.

The 91-year-old Suzuki said when the first tests began in 1997, the train caused such a massive boom each time it emerged from its tunnel that homes shook violently. He said JR Central officials listened, and made good on promises to diminish the local impact — including by developing a hood to go over the track at the tunnel exit to reduce noise and vibration.

Now, Suzuki said, most residents in his village “are not opposing” the maglev, though they plan to continue negotiating “for the least impact possible.”

Rogers said he understands that residents have lots of questions about the potential U.S. line, and said more answers will be forthcoming as the federal review process continues. But like Kosuge, he said many of their fears are misplaced.

“One of the great things about taking technology that is actually in existence, and has been tested for years and years and actually has people riding on it, is we don’t have to speculate about impacts,” Rogers said.

“Are you going to have noise? We can actually measure the noise of a real train. Or, are you going to have vibration if you’re in a tunnel? We can actually measure the vibration that’s in a tunnel and come back with real numbers.”

Noise levels, vibrations, electromagnetic fields all would fall well below permitted levels, Rogers said. “We’ve looked at all of these things.”

Hiroyuki Ohsaki, a professor in the department of advanced energy at the University of Tokyo. Kevin Rector / Baltimore Sun

Rogers also says the train would have positive environmental effects by taking cars off the roads. BWRR estimates a reduction of 2 million tons of greenhouse gases. The maglev would use large amounts of electricity, but Hiroyuki Ohsaki, a professor in the department of advanced energy at the University of Tokyo, said it would be far less than airplanes would use carrying the same number of people. And Rogers says renewable energy sources — such as wind farms he’s helped to develop in Western Maryland — could provide the energy needed.

In terms of the alignments, Rogers said BWRR would prefer the one along the eastern side of Route 295 because its effect on the surrounding communities would be smaller. It may not require any homes to be taken through eminent domain, the elevated portions of the track would be farther from homes, and construction would have less impact on Route 295, he said. The western alignment’s impact is potentially greater and less clear, he said.

Whichever route is picked, Rogers said his company will approach any necessary home purchases “in good faith” and at “fair market value.”

Politically speaking

In the usual ways of business and politics, proponents of a Northeast maglev have quietly been laying the groundwork for the project for a decade now.

By 2009, JR Central was eyeing the corridor as its best shot at exporting its maglev technology successfully. (The company has studied transportation corridors around the world, and determined the Northeast Corridor is currently the only one outside Japan that has a large enough ridership potential to support the maglev’s high costs.)

Yoshiyuki Kasai, then chairman of the railroad and a powerful figure in Japanese business and politics, recruited Patterson, an unassuming Japan expert and former National Security Council member. Patterson had helped lead U.S. foreign policy in Asia during both Bush administrations between stints in the private sector, including with U.S. defense contractor Raytheon Co.

Once he was convinced of the merits of the idea, Patterson didn’t waste much time in reaching out to Rogers, who had experience developing hydroelectric power facilities abroad and was working on building the Western Maryland wind farms as chairman of a small energy company.

Japan's Maglev train
Thomas V. Mike Miller, Md. Senate president, Wayne Rogers, BWRR and The Northeast Maglev CEO, Kevin Plank, Under Armour CEO and The Northeast Maglev advisory board member, and Sen. Ben Cardin attend an opening reception for The Northeast Maglev's Baltimore headquarters in 2015. Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun

The two knew each other from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where they’d gone through plebe summer together in 1972. Patterson said he felt Rogers had the right combination of experience in global infrastructure development and local politics in Maryland to help get the maglev project off the ground.

Rogers began flying to Tokyo to meet with Patterson and other JR Central officials. And soon enough, they made him an offer: If he started a U.S. company to operate a maglev line in the U.S., JR Central would waive the licensing fees for its technology and help secure billions in loans — ostensibly from the government-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation, though the bank has denied any promise of funding.

By 2010 the joint Japanese and American team now behind the maglev began dumping millions of dollars into advancing the project.

Since then, the maglev has been promoted at the highest levels of government. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, who is a friend of Kasai, has been a big backer, even touting it during a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House in February 2017.

“I’m sure you would appreciate the speed, the comfort and safety with the latest maglev technology — from Washington, D.C., to New York where Trump Tower exists, only one hour,” Abe said in Japanese.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe pushes U.S. maglev project during White House press conference in April. (White House video)

Trump was reportedly not listening to a translation and didn’t understand Abe. He has not discussed the train in public.

Mike Cavanaugh, chief of the trade and economic policy unit at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, said the U.S. maglev project is clearly important to the Japanese, but it is still viewed by U.S. officials as a “very long-term project” in its “very early days,” and with many unanswered questions, including how it would be financed and amortized over time.

Sho Ishii, director for overseas projects in the Japanese transportation ministry’s railway bureau, said Japan and the U.S. “are one of the closest alliances in the world,” and the Northeast maglev would be mutually beneficial.

The U.S. could massively benefit from Japan’s technology and financial backing, leaping to the forefront of rail travel without having to invest in the decades of research that Japan has already done.

Ishii acknowledged that neither the central government nor the Japan Bank for International Cooperation has made specific pledges to invest in the U.S. project, but said they likely would be willing to do so if Washington signaled it wanted to build the train.

In the U.S., the maglev has held a more prominent position in trade discussions on the state level.

Japan's Maglev train
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, right, and his wife Yumi took a test trip in 2015 on a maglev train that is undergoing testing by Central Japan Railway, at the Yamanashi Maglev Test Track in Tsuru, Japan. Ko Sasaki/for The Washington Post

Hogan rode the test train in Yamanashi during his administration’s first international trade mission to South Korea, China and finally Japan in 2015. On the morning he rode the train, Hogan met with Abe, who told him not to blink between tunnels, lest he miss a glimpse of massive Mount Fuji out the train’s window.

He also met with JR Central officials and engineers, and said he came away impressed.

“It started to look more real, rather than some futuristic Star Trek [technology] that would never happen,” Hogan said.

The following summer, in 2016, Hogan and Japan’s then-ambassador to the U.S., Kenichiro Sasae, signed a joint memorandum of cooperation on economic and trade relations that listed the maglev as an area for cooperation. Still, Hogan says he has made no decisions about the future of the maglev in the state, and won’t until the federal environmental review is completed.

BWRR officials say they don’t need any state cash. And Hogan has said he won’t pay for it.

“If we thought it was something that would benefit the state greatly, we certainly would be willing to provide rights of way and things like that,” Hogan said. “But investing billions in taxpayer dollars is not something we are willing to do.”

(He’s taken a similar stance on Elon Musk’s less-advanced “Loop” proposal to build a tunnel beneath Route 295, in which “autonomous electric skates” would travel about 150 mph between Baltimore and Washington. The Loop is not as advanced in the federal review process as the maglev proposal.)

I guess I’m traditional in that way: I think mass transit should be for the masses. This is rapid transit for the rich.

Ben Jealous, Hogan’s Democratic challenger in the Nov. 6 election

Jealous, Hogan’s challenger in next month’s election, said he opposes the maglev project because “it’s not clear how most Marylanders could afford it” even if the federal government and BWRR could find the money to build it. Officials should instead be focused on mass transit “that will actually help the people of Maryland, at a price they can afford, get to where they need to be as efficiently as possible,” Jealous said.

“I guess I’m traditional in that way: I think mass transit should be for the masses,” he said. “This is rapid transit for the rich.”

Local politicians who represent communities along the proposed rail line are split. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, both Democrats, have expressed cautious optimism and an open mind about the project, and the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland supports it. But many state delegates who represent communities between the cities oppose it.

“They really don’t have the details. They don’t understand what it could do to a community,” said Del. Pam Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat. “If they start it and don’t have the money to finish it, what happens then?”

We put a man on the moon

Bradley Smith, director of the Office of Freight and Multimodalism in the Maryland Department of Transportation, said he expects a report with more details on the final two alignments, potential station locations and other facilities to be released under the federal review process this fall. A subsequent report identifying one final route, and potentially more information about estimated construction cost, ridership and fare pricing could come next year — as could a final decision from the Federal Railroad Administration as to whether the project should advance.

Rogers said he hopes a favorable FRA decision comes by 2019, so construction could begin as early as 2020. From there, “how long it’s going to take to build it really depends on the alignment selected and the construction technology, because tunneling is done in terms of feet per day,” he said. But he said BWRR thinks it could be built within a 7-year construction window.

Once the train line reaches Baltimore, he and others said, they will be eager to push on as quickly as possible to Philadelphia and then New York, which is the real prize.

“It’d be a cash cow to New York,” Patterson said.

JR Central officials, who have long been the shadow force behind the U.S. line, said they are ready to play a long game in the Northeast, just as they have in Japan.

Japan's Maglev train
Residents who won online lottery tickets to ride the maglev test train in Yamanashi smile as the train picks up speed. Kazuo Okamoto /For The Baltimore Sun
Japan's Maglev train
A screen at the front of a maglev car shows the speed the train is traveling: 500 kilometers per hour, or about 311 mph. Kazuo Okamoto /For The Baltimore Sun

“Given the magnitude of this project, it is not something that you can casually or easily decide in a few years, or in a span of 10 years,” Kosuge said. “This requires long-standing efforts.”

Rogers agreed. He said he knows the maglev seems fantastical, but so did plans to build the first steel-wheel railroad from Baltimore all the way to Ohio, or to build out a massive interstate highway system across the U.S., or to land on the moon. The U.S. tradition is to pursue such futuristic projects “not because they were easy, but because they were hard,” he said.

“Look at John F. Kennedy standing up and saying we’re going to put a man on the moon in 10 years. And we did it! And that was at a time when we had no technology whatsoever to take a person into space,” Rogers said.

“For me to say I’m going to take a train that already exists in Japan and bring it forward? I don’t think it’s as great a leap as some of the things that our forefathers have done.”

What’s next

A federal analysis of the two proposed routes is expected this fall.

Next year, a draft Environmental Impact Statement is expected to identify a preferred route. The public can comment.

By 2020, the Federal Railroad Administration is expected to issue a final report saying which line, if either, should be built.

If political leaders in Washington and Annapolis decided to back the project, its developers would have to come up with $10 billion to $15 billion to pay for it.

Reporting for this article was funded in part by a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists. Junko Takahashi, an ICFJ translator based in Tokyo, contributed to this article.

Kevin Rector

Kevin Rector

Kevin Rector is a former investigative reporter with a focus on criminal justice. He previously covered the Baltimore Police Department and city crime. Kevin joined The Baltimore Sun in 2012, is an Ellicott City native and a Terp.