The Baltimore Sun went to Japan to ride the maglev — and studied the plan to build one in Maryland

What could be the future of high-speed travel between Baltimore, Washington and New York is already a reality in rural Japan. The magnetic levitation or “maglev” train outside Tokyo regularly hits 311 mph while floating about four inches above its test track. It’s the fastest train in the world.

The train’s developers have partnered with a Maryland-based team to propose a maglev train here. It would get you from Baltimore to Washington in just 15 minutes.

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector traveled across central Japan and throughout the Baltimore-Washington region to better understand the U.S. proposal and its Japanese counterpart. He conducted more than 50 interviews with railroad executives, engineers, lawyers, activists, analysts, local residents and elected officials.

He also rode the maglev, to experience the technology firsthand.

To read his story, click here.

Here are some key findings:

Just how fast?

The maglev train’s 311 mph maximum speed is more than twice the top speed of the fastest train in the U.S. today, Amtrak’s Acela, which sometimes reaches 150 mph.

A Northeast Corridor maglev could take travelers from Washington to New York in an hour.

Riding the maglev doesn’t diminish its other-worldliness. 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 powerful magnets work their magic. The speed quickly doubles, then triples, then quadruples.

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.

For and against

Supporters cite the project’s potential to ease highway congestion, free up air space, create jobs and boost American productivity. They say it will be a boon for Baltimore, in particular, which has lost population for decades and struggles to hold onto an economic base beyond the universities and hospitals that anchor it. They say terrible traffic congestion throughout the Northeast will strangle economic growth if nothing is done.

But opposition to the project is widespread among people who live in communities along the two proposed routes. They worry about noise, vibration or electromagnetic fields creating dangerous or disruptive conditions near their homes. They also worry the developers will seek a taxpayer-funded bailout. They want to see the money spent on other things.

Those pushing the train here say concerns about disruption or danger have all been addressed as the Japanese project has gone forward. They say few residential properties will be affected. And they say that after up-front government investment, they have no intention of seeking subsidies.

Is this really a serious proposal?

Officials from the Central Japan Railway Co., which developed the technology, have been laying the groundwork for a U.S. maglev for nearly a decade. They recruited a team of well-connected U.S. political operatives and investors.

A Maryland-based company, Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail, is now pushing the project. They say that if all goes well, they could begin construction as early as 2020. And they say the maglev could be operating between Washington and Baltimore in 2027.

The Obama administration provided $28 million to study the Washington to Baltimore proposal. Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration agreed to sponsor Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail through the federal review process.

Hogan, a Republican, says he’s waiting for the review before deciding whether to support the project. Ben Jealous, Hogan’s Democratic challenger in the November election, says he favors mass transit that would serve a much larger ridership and is opposed to the maglev project. The Trump administration has not taken a position.

What would it cost?

The Washington to Baltimore leg, which would come first, would cost an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion, according to railroad estimates. It would require significant federal funding up-front. But its backers say they would need no state cash and no ongoing federal funding.

They say fares would be competitive with those for Amtrak’s Acela service, which generally range between $50 and $100, depending on time and class of ticket.

Talk to us: What would maglev mean for you? »

What’s next?

A detailed 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.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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