Thursday, June 4, 2015

Another Politician awestruck by Maglev: Hogan in Asia

Maybe Governor Hogan switched allegiance from his fellow Governor Chris Christie (the one who the Hudson rail tunnel and returned its federal funding portion) to former Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania, (the one who on occasion of a trinket trip to ride Maglev trains in Japan exclaimed):
It is time for America to do something big and something great. I got off that train and said, 'We've got to do this"  
So it seems according to this report from WAMU, Washington's public radio station and a press release from MDOT.
The idea of such a train between DC and Baltimore is old as well. It recycles like locust, just in shorter intervals.
Hogan and his wife visibly awestruck by high speed public transport
(Washington Post photo)

Hogan in China: on a stop during his current trip 

Hogan is  the last one in a long row of gullible politicians who falls for the sexy magnetically levitated trains that have populated the dream world of train enthusiasts for more than four decades. Here what he had to say after his 312mph ride:

“One of the beautiful things about this technology is that kind of accident [like the one in Phildadelphia] couldn’t happen,” said Gov. Larry Hogan, after taking a test ride on Japan’s magnetic-levitation train. He called the ride at 505 kilometers per hour (314 miles an hour) “much safer than anything we’re doing in the U.S.”
“There’s no question that this is the future of transportation, it’s incredibly transformative in terms of what it could do for the economy of our region and our state.”
According to his MDOT press release he also said this:
 “Exploring this new Maglev technology between Baltimore and Washington represents a huge transportation and economic development opportunity for Maryland," said Governor Hogan. "I’d like to thank Prime Minister Abe and officials with JR Central for their leadership and support of this initiative.” 
Oh man! We should send you to Stuttgart, Frankfurt or Seattle, all thriving cities that have invested in light rail running surface in the outer areas and in tunnels under downtown, just like the proposed Red Line!
Light Rail Stuttgart

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

WSJ report about Hogan's Maglev ride
BBJ about Hogan's funding application

Maryland's governor thinks the Purple Line is too expensive, but wants to build a $10 billion maglev. Huh?

In 2013 I wrote the below article on the occasion of yet another party trip that politicians had undertaken to see futuristic trains since there isn't much to look at back in the US in this department

Here some text from my 2013 article: Why MagLev May Not Be The Answer

This new "short hop" marketing angle as a kind of short-range surface-jet is also the mother of  the recycled idea of a Baltimore-Washington Maglev pilot project. With Transrapid as a parent the idea had just gained enough uplift to get a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) completed.  This was in 2003. Then, as so many times before, the idea fizzled until nobody here mentioned Maglev anymore. Instead, Amtrak developed a masterplan for highspeed rail improvements for its lucrative Northeast corridor and MTA Maryland engaged in a MARC commuter train improvement plan for better connections to the District. Meanwhile China, the Country most ambitious in high speed trains set its investments all on the good old steel rail.
Corridor Study Baltimore DC

So now in 2013, it is back to the future: Maglev to DC is once again in the news from the Baltimore SUN, to the New York Times and the Economist, this time, though, the future speaks Japanese. The Japanese technology, too dates back as far as the 1960ties but it is more advanced than the Transrapid, with superconducting magnets and a guideway in form of a channel rather than a T. Once more the promise of Baltimore to DC in under 10 minutes and the famous one hour ride from Baltimore to new York let hearts beat faster, especially the hearts of a league of former transportation and government officials and media representatives who got to ride the magic train on a November Saturday. "Game changer" they whisper and forget all the reasons why US transportation is in such dire straits.

Governors Rendell and Pataki participated in the high tech tourism, and, of course, they were ecstatic, they are board members of the Japanese Consortium TNEM after all....
So can Maglev, German or Japanese, be the prince that turns the Baltimore frog  into a princess again?
My answer than and now is no to Maglev, for these reasons:

  • Maglev, largely in tunnel, costs too much (twice as much as regular high speed rail), requiring ticket prices that are too high for a mass market as it is needed to support construction and operation
  • Magnetic levitation is a technology where fleet and operating system are entirely incompatible with anything running anywhere. This requires a brand-new support system from scratch for everything. Several items necessary for large scale operation such as switches and ice built up on guide-ways are still considered risky by some experts, especially with the small Japanese tolerances. (Ice and snow is supposed to be combated with warm sprinklers!).
  • Maglev is geared towards high speed operation on longer distances. It makes little sense on short distances, Shanghai's airport shuttle has already shown that.
  • Demand on the Northeast Corridor isn't concentrated in city centers. In the typical fashion of US metropolitan areas, jobs and households are spread out  across many nodes and clusters. Between DC and Baltimore those include New Carrolton, Odenton and BWI, even Halethorpe and going north to NYC there are many more points that cannot be easily skipped without losing significant ridership. These points are best served with regular commuter trains because maximum speed is less the issue than convenient access.
  • Maglev's guideways are bulky and ugly. They require complete isolation from anything at grade and, due to the desired high speed, usually cannot use any of the historically available right of ways, an issue that even conventional HSR is battling to some extent, even though conventional HSR can slip back onto existing lines and stations at critical points.
  • Maglev would significantly detract from upgrading existing Amtrak and commuter train services. Even if Maglev would be built all the way to the Big Apple, it would still not serve Boston, Richmond, or Miami,  all serviced by Amtrak which can gradually improve.
  • The fixation on new technology and speed to the detriment of access, connectivity and existing communities is an "old school" approach to solving problems with big, expensive and top down solutions reminiscent of the craze to extend freeways through city centers, large scale urban renewal, super high rises, fusion reactors and similarly destructive approaches where unintended consequences outweighed the benefits and often turned the dream into a nightmare.  
Hogan is one in a long line of politicians falling for
sexy technology

at the time I concluded my article this way:

Maglev offers no continuum, no incremental implementation and no solution for our cash starved infrastructure. Maglev requires the climber  who wants to scale the mountain of the transportation problem not only to go back to the base station but also to move to the other, steeper side of the mountain. How much easier, even if not as intellectually stimulating is it to continue the climb on the existing path.
No matter how technologically attractive linear induction motors are to engineers, or travelling politicians, reality poses some real big hurdles, as boring as this may be. Maglev instead of being the future may well be the past, the same past of technological bulkiness that brought us nuclear power and kept fusion reactors out of reach. Maglev is likely not the answer, neither for global transportation nor for the renaissance of Baltimore, home of America's first passenger rail service. 

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