Thursday, December 15, 2016

MagLev valuable innovation or distraction?

Magnetically levitated trains in the Baltimore Washington corridor are no longer just a glimmer in the eyes of some futurists, they are the subject of an official environmental impact study (EIS) jointly undertaken by MDOT and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a step that was announced in November of this year. Three public "scoping meetings" are held this week to inform the public, the same week in which the region finally decided to market and brand themselves in unison. Given the state of high speed rail in this country this turn of events is surprising. In the announcement of the federal EIS the FRA described the maglev project this way:
Testing SCMagLev: Governor Hogan and Secretary Rahn
in Japan in 2015
FRA and MDOT will complete the environmental and engineering studies for a proposed Baltimore-Washington SCMAGLEV train system between Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD, with an intermediate stop at BWI Airport. FRA and MDOT anticipate the study area 4 will be approximately 40 miles long and 10 miles wide. The proposed study area is roughly bounded on the west by Interstate 95 and on the east by the former Washington-Baltimore & Annapolis Electric Railroad alignment. It includes portions of the City of Baltimore, Baltimore County, Howard County, Anne Arundel County, and Prince George’s County in Maryland, and Washington, DC. BWRR has indicated it wishes to develop a SCMAGLEV system, potentially extending as far north as Boston, MA and south to Charlotte, NC. Such a project or projects will not be addressed in the EIS FRA and MDOT are preparing, but could be subject to separate NEPA review in the future, as appropriate. BWRR’s proposed SCMAGLEV system would be designed to provide approximately 15- minute service between the new Baltimore and Washington stations, and would run on a new, high-quality guideway with bi-directional service, an automatic train control system, and no at-grade crossings. BWRR anticipates the project would be funded by a mix of federal, international, and private funding, and would include construction of the new SCMAGLEV guideway, stations, and maintenance facilities.
To assess how real this project is one has to go back in history:

The idea that magnets can propel a train and levitate it at the same time, the concept of the linear motor, has been around as an idea since 1909. It garnered various patents and finally slow experimental trains using the technology were constructed in Hamburg, Germany, as early as 1978. The German consortium Transrapid that had built the exhibition train soon followed with a high speed version of the technology that ran on a test track in the countryside.
Japanese SC MagLev: Up to $350mph

Since then generations of tech enthusiasts and politicians drank the Kool Aid after taking a test ride on the Transrapid trains that began racing in circles in 1984. After the Germans failed for decades to sell their trains to anybody (except an airport shuttle) a 2006 accident on their test track did them in and the test track was subsequently demolished.

But the end of the German test track didn't mean the end of Maglev. Japan and Korea also invested in the magnetic train technology and developed their own system that is even faster and via superconducting magnets more advanced.

The Veni, vidi, vici. of MagLev continued, with politicians coming, seeing and the trains winning over their hearts and minds desiring to be innovative and not miss the next big thing. One after the other politicians declared magnetic levitation as the future of transportation, something they just had to have in their city or state.
French second generation high speed rail: Up to 250 mph
(but tested at 350 mph)
In spite of all the enthusiasm going on for at least 32 years, only two MagLev systems ever went into revenue service, both as airport shuttles. Only one long distance system is under construction in Japan. Clearly enthusiasm and reality don't match up. One could speak of parallel universes.

The hope that Maglev would emerge as the technology that would replace steel rails and steel wheels did not materialize at all. All countries with real high speed rail systems remained with steel rails and wheels, even China which built an entire high speed rail system from scratch and appeared to be a perfect case for MagLev.

Maryland politicians drank the Kool Aid as well. This EIS is not the first study ever done here. Other studies had been commissioned and forgotten. Architects designed train stations (in Baltimore an underground MagLev station was once envisioned to open in 2012 in front of Camden Station). As we know, nothing like that happened. Instead the age-old Howard Street tunnel still can't transport the taller double-stack freight cars and passenger trains still rumble at 30mph through the historic B&P tunnel. MagLev also has been envisioned elsewhere in the US and has been considered by transportation planners around the world as the next big thing. But when push came to shove the dreams evaporated and never got realized. The reason?

Non compatibility and cost. Traditional high speed rail can be developed seamlessly from the old rail infrastructure. MagLev needs to be built from the ground up and nothing of the existing rail infrastructure can be used. The high speed of MagLev would make it ideal for long distance connections but as an all-new system becomes super exepensive. Each project that was more closely considered and engineered (such as Maglev Hamburg to Berlin) became way more expensive that high-speed rail on steel rails.

Frustrated by the lack of market, the Japanese consortium is now offering to pay a large part of the cost to get their foot into the US market which makes MagLev look like a good alternative to the always cash strapped Amtrak.  Depending on whom one asks, MagLev wouldn't be an alternative to the multi billion dollar rehabilitation of the northeast corridor (NEC) but an adjunct. Or it would be the alternative to real investment into high speed rail. In the "Purpose and Need" section FRA says this:
The purpose of BWRR’s Proposed Action is to increase capacity, reduce travel time, and improve both reliability and mobility options between Baltimore and Washington. The population in the Baltimore-Washington area makes up one of the largest and densest population centers in the United States. Over the next 30 years the population in the area is projected to increase by approximately 30 percent. Similarly, the demand on the transportation infrastructure between Baltimore and Washington will continue to increase along major roadways and railways including Interstate 95, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (MD 295), US 29, US 1, and the Northeast Corridor (NEC) thereby decreasing the level of service, reliability, mobility, and potentially decreasing safety. The Baltimore-Washington area is served by the NEC rail network that runs parallel to Interstate 95 in the area and spans from Washington, DC to Boston, MA. Amtrak, commuter railroads, and freight railroads operate a variety of services on the NEC. In the Baltimore-Washington area, Amtrak runs intercity passenger rail service, Maryland Area Regional Commuter operates commuter rail service, and CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern 5 Railway run freight trains during off-peak times over portions of the NEC between Baltimore and Washington. Each of these services competes for operational times for service on the existing NEC and demand continues to increase. Without additional transportation improvements and capacity within the Baltimore-Washington area, economic development and growth opportunities will be restricted. As congestion increases on the NEC and on the region’s highways, the demand for continued economic development will be impacted, including, for example, tourism
One can see advancing MagLev as distraction that diverts attention and resources away from the desperately needed investments in the existing Boston to Richmond rail corridor. Or one can see it as the future in which the roadways between these centers completely collapse, air traffic too congested as well and significant additional train capacity would be needed to move people in the corridor, beyond even a modernized Amtrak corridor.
Earlier Balto Wash corridor MagLev fantasies: Transrapid

This latter view seems to be the prevailing one for the time being, at least for MDOT and various regional business leaders. No matter that autonomous vehicles (AV) may give the existing interstates another lease on life through a drastic capacity increase of capacity that comes from cars travelling in platoons. No matter that even the first very small leg of MagLev between DC and Baltimore would cost billions, take up valuable real estate and would leave folks stranded at some station in Baltimore that would not be Penn Station. No matter that Maglev would not be able to serve key markets between Baltimore and Washington because it would be too fast to stop. No matter that the private consortium can't point to any successful installation in the world, that could serve as a precedent to the ultimate vision, a MagLev corridor from DC to Boston. Unless one takes the project in Japan as the example: JR Central plans to complete work on the Tokyo–Nagoya section of MagLev by 2027 at a cost of roughly $45-50 billion), all being paid by the private corporation.

Two different universes, indeed. They don't really seem compatible. Which one is the uinverse we live in?

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA