Maglev? Hyperloop? How about fixing what we've got?

The concrete achievement of a really useful intercity rail system is in reach for Maryland if it defers the maglev and hyperloop dreams in favor of the needs of today’s household travelers.

/By Woody Woodruff/ Maglev or Hyperloop? Pie, or pie a la mode? Discussions of two advanced transportation systems are hitting new levels of hype when Maryland doesn’t (according to Gov. Larry Hogan) have the nickels to rub together for a Red Line in Baltimore or for a Purple Line that’s fully funded enough to be a genuine advantage over existing suburban-perimeter bus lines.

Skepticism about these two very expensive ideas (about $10 billion just for the maglev) is emerging in contrast to the hyperventilating from Hogan (and business interests) about two technologies (one quite unproven) that would provide huge opportunities for profit in construction and in the assembly of new right of way. Meanwhile a perfectly good intercity rail system is being starved into uselessness by the state and by Congress.

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has proposed a tunnel-based “hyperloop” that would send high-speed capsules from Baltimore to D.C. with a half-dozen passengers each (!). Gov. Hogan came back from his sell-Maryland trip to Japan with pictures of his ride on a functioning Japanese high-speed Magnetic Levitation train and $2 million in seed money from Japanese investors to get a feasibility study going for the project between Baltimore and D.C.

Sober and skeptical analyses of the cost and feasibility of both projects have floated around separately, even as Baltimore-Washington Corridor residential communities looked at the several right-of-way plans and grabbed their torches and pitchforks.

The latest takedown – of both projects considered together – comes from the excellent Baltimore Brew news site, which has deployed national transportation writer Alon Levy to analyze the cost and utility of both or either proposed system. Outlining the hype from Hogan and Musk, he asks: “But under scrutiny, do either of these proposals hold up as the right choice for Maryland’s and Baltimore’s transportation needs?

“Spoiler alert: the answer is no.”

He has asked exactly the right question, because the disruptive effect of new right of way and unusual construction practices and patterns not only provides huge opportunities for big money to skim some more big money at the public’s expense. It also ignores the existence of a serviceable but sadly under-maintained rail network on existing right of way, one that links intracity transit with intercity transit in the region’s two major urban areas and has the potential to do even more with investment at only a fractional level of the cost of these whiz-bang new technologies.

People who know this writer – a science fiction fan for nearly seventy years – know how much it hurts to dismiss these fancy thrusts into the future. But the future for Maryland and the Baltimore-Washington Corridor that is its nerve pathway lies in firming up the existing transportation network and reducing automobile use in favor of electric-powered mass transit on rail or roads.

Why would that be better? The hyperloop first: as Levy says, entrepreneur Musk “doesn’t even have a proof of concept” – that is, an actual hyperloop system moving passengers at his claimed 760 mph. “Musk is not only hawking a wholly unproven system, but he hasn’t even bothered to make sure it has adequate capacity in the event the system does succeed.”

Hyperloop and Maglev also share a common problem – they are too short. Yep, the two cities are only forty miles apart, and “The sweet spot for high-speed rail is longer distance trips. … [the Japanese company building a commercial maglev] plans to open its domestic maglev line starting with a 180-mile segment between Tokyo and Nagoya. It is not planning any 40-mile stub.

 An Acela train even on Amtrak’s under-maintained trackage makes the trip in 25-30 minutes; the Magleve would cut that to 15 minutes. Is that enough to justify the huge ticket price that the initial cost of Maglev would require? Don’t forget, Hogan is envisioning a “public private partnership” to build the maglev, meaning the backers will want to see a 10-15 percent investment. As the Brookings Institution says of this method (touted also by Donald Trump), “There is no free lunch.”

images.jpgTicket prices will not be anywhere near as low as the $8 cost of a MARC ride from city to city.

The search for new right of way not only offers opportunities for commercial exploitation but scares the bejeesus out of residential communities along the proposed paths.

Residents along the possible pathways roused with alarm. The Bowie Blade-News reported Aug 2 “The potential disruption to homeowners brought 300 people out to a City Council meeting last month during which city officials and residents heard from David Henley, the project director for the Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rails (BWRR) Maglev Project.” But the Blade reported Oct. 19 that “Three of the six proposed super conductor magnetic levitation (SCMAGLEV) high-speed train routes between Washington and Baltimore have been cut, including two that would have had impacted Bowie. Officials connected to the proposal made the announcement during an open house on the project attended by hundreds of local residents at Bowie State University Saturday.”

A group of Bowie residents formed a “grassroots coalition” against Maglev, period, and in a Change.org petition stated “The Maryland MAGLEV development process has been pushed along with very little notice to residents and very little stakeholder input.”

People along the corridor, including many who commute from one of the major urban areas to another, have clamored for years for more attention to the existing network, particularly that of MARC –which proposed a highly functional expansion of its service half a decade ago and got zero response from both Martin O’Malley’s and Hogan’s administrations, or from the General Assembly.

More recently, longtime transit activist Ben Ross and some fellow activists (many, like him, fighters for the Purple Line) proposed a similar expansion creating “a statewide rail network that would run from Delaware to Southern Maryland to West Virginia while connecting the Baltimore and Washington Metro systems.” It would include reviving Baltimore’s Red Line, which Hogan defunded. As the Washington Business Journal acidly observed, “Hogan has been a big fan of high-tech rail transit (minus the reluctantly approved Purple Line and Baltimore's canceled Red Line).”

In a WaPo “Daily 202” business-section analysis, Kevin DeGood of the Center for American Progress elaborated:

: “Initial back-of-the-envelope estimates place the construction cost of the maglev train at $10 billion, and the history of mega-projects strongly suggests that the final cost will be much higher.” Writer wonders if “if improvements to the Northeast Corridor would deliver similar mobility and economic development gains far more cost-effectively.” …

“Isn’t there a more cost-effective way to improve rail service between Baltimore and the District? Unequivocally, yes. Two projects on the Northeast Corridor would allow for a significant expansion of MARC service, including more nonstop trips.

“First, the Northeast Corridor between Baltimore and the District has only three tracks for the majority of the route. This limits the number of trains that can travel in each direction during the morning and evening peak commuting hours. Adding a fourth track would require some use of eminent domain, though nothing compared with a maglev line. Second, the two passenger rail tunnels in Baltimore are more than 140 years old and in need of replacement. A new four-tunnel system would double capacity and increase train speeds.

“Completing these two projects would significantly expand commuter rail service and benefit millions of Amtrak riders along the Northeast Corridor, all for a fraction of the cost of a maglev line.”

Levy’s analysis in Baltimore Brew comes to similar conclusions:

“Conventional high-speed rail benefits from being technologically compatible with legacy trains: high-speed trains can run on slower track at reduced speed.

“In most countries, high-speed rail has used this feature to connect to cities far from purpose-built high-speed lines. In France, for instance, the original TGV line only opened two thirds of the way, forcing the train to spend the last third of the route at low speed.

“Conventional high-speed rail can also use existing station platforms, since the last few miles into New York and Washington would be low-speed no matter what.

“Maglev cannot do any of this.

“A maglev line between Baltimore and Washington would have to construct a new station in Washington with its own approaches. Extending it to Philadelphia and New York would require new tunnels under Philadelphia’s Center City and across suburban New Jersey all the way to Manhattan. The cost would be prohibitive.

“In contrast, Amtrak and states like Maryland could upgrade the Northeast Corridor to conventional high-speed rail incrementally, one segment at a time, and use existing station approaches in most cases.

“Incompatibility with older rail infrastructure is why so few countries have been interested in maglev or other unconventional rail technologies. … China built a short maglev line between Shanghai airport and a subway interchange to the central city that has lost more than one billion renminbi. Since then, the country has neglected maglev and instead invested heavily in a network of conventional high-speed rail.

“Switzerland rejected a plan to build fast vacuum trains across the country a decade ago and keeps investing in its rail network. Japan is building maglev, but only because JR Central’s conventional high-speed line between Tokyo and Osaka is so busy that it needs more capacity.

“In its zeal to look futuristic, Maryland and its governor are embracing technology that is indisputably advanced, but also outrageously expensive and not the right fit for the state’s transportation needs.

“Instead of buying what Elon Musk or [Japanese rail consortium] JR Central is trying to sell, Maryland DOT and Gov. Hogan should invest in the existing Northeast Corridor that gets people from Baltimore to Washington, Philadelphia and New York reasonably fast,” Levy concludes.

It’s clear, too, that any manifestation of these bells and whistles version of intercity transportation would be so costly to build that the average person could never afford them without massive state subsidies underwriting low tickets costs. Maryland does not need to build a system for elite travel.

High-speed trains would work well if Congress really wanted a national rail system of the sort that makes Swiss and other networks a lifeblood of commercial and personal transportation in Europe and parts of Asia. It would require upgrading trackage in the Northeast Corridor – already a profit center for Amtrak and the most popular intercity travel option  for Boston-New York-D.C. travelers – to match the rolling stock. Acela trains could go much, much faster over better track.

So the benefits of being the southern anchor of a genuine high-speed intercity rail system could come to Baltimore and Washington in the current right of way. The pitchforks and torches can go back in the garage.

For that matter, if track maintenance and improvement nationwide were taken out of the hands of the freight networks – to whom Amtrak must kowtow for the use of their miserable trackage – the national rail network could approach a viable speed. An Acela train on good track could go coast to coast in 15-18 hours. How many people would prefer today’s air travel to an overnight trip to the other coast, early dinner to late breakfast?

Well, yes… those are a rail buff’s futuristic dreams emerging. But the concrete achievement of a really useful intercity rail system is in reach for Maryland if it defers the maglev and hyperloop dreams in favor of the needs of today’s household travelers.