Thursday, October 26, 2017

Maglev: "Boondoggle always in the back of my mind"

“The word boondoggle is always on the back of my mind” Brandon Bratcher, project representative of the Federal Railroad Administration about MagLev 
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) provides the $27.8 million necessary for engineers and planners to go through the many steps of an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for building a super conductor magnetically levitated train (SC Maglev) between Washington and Baltimore. But it was the FRA representative Brandon Bratcher who in brief remarks at Wednesday's Open House went out of his way to tell the public that this "feasibility study... may well be that in the end, no-built is the preferred alternative “ and that the project is promoted by a private consortium (BWRR) which issues statements that one should "take with a grain of salt".  

The lengthy EIS, conducted according to the rules of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), so far produced the creation, review and elimination of various alignment alternatives in the 40 mile corridor. (A video explaining  the process can be found here). To date, the longest piece of track with actual SC-MagLev trains running anywhere in the world is 22.5 miles long and located in Japan.
Governor Hogan: Roads and demolition
(Photo: Philipsen)

While the MTA has trouble getting their buses above a trip speed of 13 mph, the visionaries that see trains hurtle between Washington and Baltimore with eye popping speeds of 300 mph or more never cease to pop up like weeds in the spring.

Initially a German consortium proposed and planned magnetically levitated trains, now a Japanese consortium is following the same route with a second generation technology including super-conductivity achieved through cooling an electric conduit to near absolute zero temperatures. Both consortia promised that Washington to Baltimore was just the beginning and that New York and Boston would be the final destinations.

As if superconductors and levitation weren't futuristic enough,  Elon Musk of Tesla has gotten into the act with an even more "out there" technology, the Hyperloop. It also envisions magnetic levitation but its smaller pods are "shot" through subterranean vacuum tubes at even higher speeds.

Governor Hogan is Maryland's top cheerleader for both dream projects, even though he is otherwise stuck in the 20th century with unwavering commitment to more roads, more lanes and better signals for cars.

Hogan likes those futuristic technologies and their promoters because they say their projects won't cost the State anything. So the Governor can look progressive while redirecting tax dollars from the transportation trust fund earmarked for transit to his favorite road projects; a pretty neat trick, especially if one doesn't think further than the next election.
Pogress of the current environmental study phase

If one thinks about how the region can remain competitive by offering a practical, functional and reliable transportation system, those sci-fi eye poppers are not very helpful. I have written about the shortcomings of MegLev and the Hyperloop before and you can find those articles here and here.

Still, the Maglev dream- train keeps chugging along, a verb that adequately describes the speed of weaving one's way through the regulatory process, not the promised travel speed of the train itself.
The three alternative Baltimore station areas at Westport, the Inner Harbor and Port Covington (website)
While MagLev keeps holding those dreadful "Open House" public information events, Elon Musk starts tunneling with a utility permit of a type you would need to run a new water line through your backyard. For a test tunnel that not different than digging for utilities, if one can believe the Hogan Administration. One would think that those folks also need some environmental permits, but that would be another article.

The presentation boards of the current SC-Maglev Open Houses can be found here. So far some corridor and station areas have been eliminated from consideration. All remaining alternatives show the alignment to be mostly underground, especially in DC and Baltimore  with only a few segments in between above ground on an elevated structure.
Elevated or in a tunnel
While the alternative station areas in the DC area are based on access and intermodal connections, the Baltimore end seems to be much more driven by political considerations and Kevin Plank's presence on the SC-Maglev Board of Directors.

All three suggested station areas are located in South Baltimore and seem geared towards providing access to the future Port Covington. Entirely absent is any consideration on how the a high speed train station should serve the full metro area best, especially once there would be a future extension towards New York. Nor is thought given to how the phase 1 travelers would be able to transfer from MagLev to the Amtrak Acela trains if their destination is not Baltimore. Even how people would move on inside Baltimore appears to be an open question.

One can most certainly assume, that with such  considerations in mind, the Baltimore station should be closer to the existing rail train station, and definitely further north given that the only other station between Baltimore and DC is at BWI, i.e. south of the City. 

The Maglev study, in spite of its extensive environmental criteria, is yet another transportation study that doesn't consider land use, the future of our metro region, or the impact train stations have on urban form. How much these missing things matter in reality can be seen after high speed EuroStar trains connected France and England. An instructive example is EuraLille and how it prepared for a Europe connected by new generation trains and was shaped by it.
The new Euralille district, considered as the city of Lille’s 11th district, was born from a political desire to grasp an exceptional opportunity resulting from the construction of the Channel Tunnel: with a high speed (TGV) rail network and a substantial property market in its city centre, to make it an international showcase for the Lille metropolis.
Eurollie is located on old military lands, near of city center and, currently, it covers 110 hectares.
The Lille authorities decided to retain the terminus station, Gare de Flandres, and build a new through-station, Gare d’Europe, nearby. HSTs from Paris stop at Gare de Flandres, while Gare d’Europe, opened in 1994, is a stopping place for some of the Eurostar-trains running between Paris and London and between Brussels and London (others pass by without stopping at Lille). In the zone between the two stations, a former military terrain adjoining the inner city, which could be acquired at a comparatively low cost, a new multi-functional urban settlement was developed in direct consequence of the advent of the HST; this new urban area was given the name of Euralille.
The real question is how the entire East Coast can be woven together by a comprehensive network of high speed long distance, regional and local trains. SC MagLev as an incompatible technology that doesn't match up with any existing system in any way, seems to be a system that should better be tested in Texas where passenger trains are almost absent to begin with. Here, the focus should be on getting the North East Corridor (NEC) modernization done, another project in various stages of environmental review. The French TGV can also reach 300mph but runs on conventional track.

Given how feeble our infrastructure is and how tight our urban corridor is, DC, Maryland, PA, New Jersey and NYC all can ill afford having the NEC, SC-MagLev and a Hyperloop compete for attention, real estate and resources.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

No comments:

Post a Comment