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Transportation problems must be addressed regardless of maglev success [Commentary]

Earlier this month, The Baltimore Sun published a fine piece by Kevin Rector with research provided by Paul McCardell about the proposed maglev train project between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. ("Backers of high-speed 'maglev' train to Washington claim $5 billion in funding," Sept. 4). I applaud their work because it presents many of the arguments for and against such a project. However, there are many diverse technical, financial, political and societal considerations that must be addressed before such a project can become a reality.

I have ridden the Shanghai Maglev Train many times. It is arguably one of the world's fastest trains, capable of reaching 220 miles per hour in two minutes with a maximum speed of 268 mph in normal operation. This train travels the 19 miles between Shanghai and Pudong International Airport in a little over seven minutes with departures every 15 and 30 minutes, depending on the time of day. The ride is smooth and a really pleasant way to get to the airport with no sensation of vibration or other motion found on conventional trains. As stated in Mr. Rector's article, this is because this 21st-century train travels not on wheels but on a magnetic field.

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The Chinese began construction on the first leg of their system in March 2001, and public service started in January 2004 — not very long by U.S. standards. The plan in 2007 was to complete a western extension to Shanghai's other major airport, Hong Qiao, and beyond to other cities west of Shanghai by 2010. That has yet to be completed for a variety of reasons, both financial and political. All of these reasons are eclipsed by very low ridership on the existing route; at times, no more than 10 percent of capacity.

Shortly after the maglev system went into operation, the Shanghai Metro system completed its ultramodern light rail extension to the Pudong International Airport. The price for a one-way maglev ticket is 50 yuan, or a little more than $8. This price reflects the heavy government subsidy that has been used since the beginning of service to promote the project. The one-way price for the competing Metro ticket is only 10 yuan (about $1.60). Now, the general public has a very attractive alternative for one-fifth the price.

Maglev trains are very expensive to build. The tracks for the Shanghai system are almost all elevated, as a collision with another object at such speeds would be catastrophic. The track itself is much more complex (and infinitely more expensive) than traditional rails, as it is really what propels the train. Therefore, the cost of any maglev system is increased dramatically with each additional mile of track. Furthermore, the track must be almost straight, with few changes in elevation, to accommodate such high speeds. With this in mind, I am skeptical and a little concerned about the current plans for a Baltimore-Washington maglev.

Nevertheless, the current air and ground transportation congestion found throughout most of the northeast corridor (including the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area) and extending along the eastern seaboard to Richmond, Va. and beyond is much more than just an inconvenience. In the past, it has cost lives, damaged the environment and cost literally billions of dollars in lost economic activity. Today, it is an ever-increasing threat to personal safety, and it continues to diminish the regional and national economies. Without bold and decisive planning and implementation to relieve this congestion, our standard of living will decline at an accelerated rate.

Can we afford to maintain the status quo much longer? Not if we want to preserve and advance our way of life. I welcome a thorough, but quick, exploration of solutions such as the one discussed by Mr. Rector and Mr. McCardell.

A maglev train system may or may not be part of an optimal or practical overall solution, but two things are certain: We must come up with plans and actions to solve our massive transportation problems soon, and — regardless of their characteristics — they will be very expensive.

E. Tylor Claggett Jr. is a professor of finance at the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business within Salisbury University. His email is etclaggett@salisbury.edu.

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