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Maglev may be visionary, but high-speed rail is more practical

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. But is it feasible?

I applaud the article, “‘It can be done’: Futuristic Japanese maglev train could revolutionize travel from DC to Baltimore, and beyond” (Oct. 27), for its thoroughness and insight into the pros and cons of maglev and, particularly, the potential impacts of maglev in this area, but I would like to remind readers of maglev's shortcomings.

Maglev is capital cost intensive and the up-front construction costs are huge. Maglev is typically elevated or in tunnels and it has significant right-of-way requirements. There are problematic environmental challenges through construction and operation. It is energy intensive; it uses a great deal of electricity for lift and propulsion. As with other major rail projects, maglev is marketed as a generator of major economic benefits, but just as with other projects, economic development does not necessarily follow. Also, the faster a means of transportation, the more costly it is for users.

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Maglev does have an interesting history. The Germans and Japanese have been developing maglev for decades, and I have read all that time about how maglev will be deployed soon. It should be telling that neither country has built a commercial maglev within its borders. Sure, they are happy to sell it to someone else. According to the article, the Japanese intend to have a commercial maglev line by 2037. Well, I can promise to do just about anything by 2037, too. It's also telling that the Japanese, Germans, and French invested in high-speed rail, steel wheels on rail, instead.

While maglev technology captures the imagination, let's be realistic about about it. It may be more beneficial to accelerate passenger rail by improving the existing Northeast Rail Corridor.

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Z. Andrew Farkas, Baltimore

The writer is director of the National Transportation Center at Morgan State University.

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