Monday, October 29, 2018

Can Maglev trains make the US a leader in high speed rail?

In the context of the wide outreach to politicians and the media by the Japanese rail consortium to promote their magnetic levitation train system (Maglev) for use in the US, the Baltimore SUN was in Japan to test the trains and investigate the topic in detail. The first route is supposed to run between Washington and Baltimore. The Sun covered its findings in a detailed and largely impartial report which covered three and a half pages in its print section. However, the author of this article believes that many relevant questions were not asked. This article is intended to put them on the table.

Maglev, the big disrupter?

When it comes to magnetic levitation trains proponents stress the superlatives: The speed (311 miles per hour), the fact it can't derail, the precision (0.5-3.7"), the cost ($10-15 billion for 30 miles between DC and Baltimore), and the technology itself.
Happy for the support: Northeast Maglev CEO, Wayne Rogers with
Maryland influenzers Mike Miller, Kevin Plank and Ben Cardin (SUN photo)

Comparisons usually reach beyond the earth:  There is inevitable talk about Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon. Comparisons are also made to earlier technological revolutions: How those who funded and built the first US passenger railroad (starting in Baltimore) outmaneuvered those who continued building canals. How the automobile was not just an improved horse carriage. How adopting the Japanese technology would somehow move the US to the front of high speed train technology. Today "disruption" has become the mantra for entire industries and the inventor Elon Musk sends a Tesla into orbit, the promoters of Maglev trying to direct some of this glow on their trains which still haven't really caught on.

How Maglev works

The technology is, indeed, a superlative and some basics are needed to understand what chances Maglev has to be a disrupter in transportation. The key technological difference: Unlike conventional trains, there isn't an engine or a set of electric motors pulling the train along steel tracks but electricity is used to create magnetism between the guideway and the train which makes it float and move. While traditional electric motors have a coil, in the "linear motor" of Maglev the coil is unspooled along the guideway.
 Japanese Maglev guideway: A big concrete trough
The magnetized coil running along the track, called a guideway, repels the large magnets on the train's undercarriage, allowing the train to levitate between 0.39 and 3.93 inches (1 to 10 centimeters) above the guideway. Once the train is levitated, power is supplied to the coils within the guideway walls to create a unique system of magnetic fields that pull and push the train along the guideway. The electric current supplied to the coils in the guideway walls is constantly alternating to change the polarity of the magnetized coils. This change in polarity causes the magnetic field in front of the train to pull the vehicle forward, while the magnetic field behind the train adds more forward thrust.
From Federal Railroad Administration website
Maglev trains float on a cushion of air, eliminating friction. This lack of friction and the trains' aerodynamic designs allow these trains to reach unprecedented ground transportation speeds of more than 310 mph (500 kph), or twice as fast as Amtrak's fastest commuter train. (How stuff works)
The history

Maglev is not a new technology. It has inspired the fantasy of engineers and politicians for a at least a century. The idea to use it for a new generation of trains is least 50 years old. In spite of all that time, only two Maglev test tracks were built (one in Germany, one in Japan).  Only one short spur of the German system has ever gone into service for revenue: The Shanghai airport line. The Japanese finally have a longer route under construction. It will connect Tokyo to Nagoya and is planned to open in 2027 for an estimated cost of $80 billion. A later extension is planned to go to Osaka. The Japanese system uses cooled superconductors for the massive amounts of electric energy needed to charge the magnets and create the levitation and propulsion. This reduces electrical resistance and saves some energy, but is in itself a feat of technology since it requires cooling the magnets to -480F, not something a regular refrigerator can do.
German Maglev and guideway: A different concept
(Photo: Philipsen)

There are several reasons why Maglev has not become the prevailing technology for high speed trains anywhere and why China builds an entire high speed rail (HSR) network with conventional steel wheels on steel rails and not with Maglev, no matter how much magic the patent holders attribute to this particular disruption. The reasons are technical, economical, environmental and most importantly, reside at the most relevant question in transportation, its purpose and need.

Environmetal issues

In critical reporting about Maglev the media enlist the standard environmental issues of displacement of people, vibration, noise and impacts from tunnel construction. This gives the impression that Maglev would be the victim of the usual NIMBY arguments leveraged against any other transportation project as well. From what is public knowledge, the environmental impacts of Maglev would not be higher than with conventional rail. The higher speed won't lead to more vibration and noise because the air cushion eliminates the biggest source of noise and vibration: Friction. Tunnels and bridges will be constructed the same way as in conventional rail. At grade service problematic for anything that moves near or above 300mph which makes any version of surface rail more disruptive than traditional railroads allowing at grade crossings and the like. More problematic is the technology itself. It requires extensive guideway construction and high amounts of electricity.
[Maglev] constitutes not only an extraordinarily costly but also an abnormally energy-wasting project, consuming in operation between four and five times as much power as the Tokaido shinkansen,”Hidekazu Aoki and Nobuo Kawamiya

When innovators talk about disruption, they also talk about scale. Without scale Maglev can't be a true disrupter. Scale occurs when after initial pilots a new technology becomes cheaper and inevitable because of mass application. That has happened to computers, solar cells and mobile phones. There is no hope that Maglev could embark on such a path. The 50th Maglev would be just as expensive as the first, its energy consumption no less. Unlike semi-conductors, Maglev trains are a full and complete system and as such don't allow incremental improvement.
Planned Japanese Maglev: First ever long distance revenue service

If new ways of doing magnetic levitation or propulsion would be developed, it would make the current system obsolete. Just as the German and the Japanese system are not interchangeable, Maglev technology is highly proprietary and unique. So much so, that it is incompatible with every single other mode of transportation in use today. This is no small problem. In fact, it is probably the reason why no country has implemented Maglev as a system. The unique linear motor induction technology raises even the question whether Maglev is connectable with itself with switches and a network of guideways as in a traditional rail network.

The comparison with conventional rail highlights the network question very well: Conventional rail is by and large compatible from country to country and even between different modes such as streetcars, light rail, commuter rail and high speed rail. This not only allows light rail or commuter trains to travel on the same tracks as Amtrak trains, but it also allows trains to  cross borders to Canada or, in Europe across many countries. Operation and technology commonalities allows also incremental improvement and many different types of engines, coaches and train sets to operate in a mix. Europe, Japan, and recently China have high speed trains in operation, which can reach speeds very close to those of a Maglev train. The French train a grande vitesse (TGV) may not excite engineers as much as a super-conduction Maglev train, but it operates every day on a large network with speeds of 199 mph and in can roll into the same train station next to a slow commuter train.


In a time when there is a lot of talk about resilience, vulnerable systems are questionable. High speed systems of any kind are far more vulnerable than traditional trains but Maglev poses its own set of vulnerability. Dependence on one single manufacturer and its patent is a huge vulnerability. The fact that Maglev trains can't derail, can't collide with each other (at least not on the same track) and may be thus safer than conventional trains doesn't eliminate its vulnerability as a monopoly.
There are other vulnerabilities: If the power goes out on a conventional electric train, a diesel engine can be dispatched to push it to its destination. Maglev has no such option. In fact, on traditional tracks almost anything can be dispatched, including construction equipment, cranes and emergency vehicles provided from a wide market of sources. For Maglev all of this would have to be sourced from the single manufacturer.

The Maglev guideways are unique and much more complicated to build than steel rails on ties on rock ballast, or even than steel rails mounted on continuous concrete slabs. While it is true, that conventional high speed rail puts enormous stress and wear on tracks and wheels, these items can be calibrated and maintained on a daily basis without too much difficulty and cost. Maglev guideways have much less wear due to the lack of direct contact, yet, they cannot be easily calibrated either. Besides, the Japanese Maglev trains still have contact wheels for low speeds up to 70mph.
Diagrams explaining the difference beteween a conventional
electric train and Maglev. (FRA website)

Meanwhile the Japanese u-shaped concrete trough poses drainage, ice and snow challenges. Like any big concrete structure it has all the well known problems of tolerances, concrete fatigue, cracking, corrosion and deterioration from stray current, issues that plague bridge engineers around the world even without those super high speeds.

It is actually only consistent that Elon Musk's Hyperloop, also proposed for the DC to Baltimore connection, is in many ways more innovative by addressing those problems. It deals with air drag which grows in square to the speed by suggesting a vacuum tube. He eliminates much of the concrete guideway through his efficient tube construction and he replaces a continuous linear motor propulsion system with intermittent boosters. His entire system would be underground and never be exposed to the elements. His tunnels and passenger compartments are smaller and allow customization of origins and destinations. Of course, his system is even more conceptual than Maglev. The matter of customization gets us to the most important point, the transportation purpose.

The transportation purpose

Maglev proponents promise to take a bite out of congestion and air pollution and getting people faster to where they want to go, all items which score under what transportation experts call "purpose and need". There is no doubt that the Northeast corridor is congested, whether one talks about roads, airports, or even trains. Could Maglev really make a difference?
No doubt, many people cherish train travel over flying or driving because of its superior experience which includes seeing the landscape, being able to eat a real meal on the train or to walk around. Amtrak already beats air travel within the Northeast corridor in passenger volume and is already the only corridor in the country where the train is faster than the car.
German ICE train in Frankfurt train hall: All trains under one roof

Anybody who ever planned transit or transportation knows, that the users have totally different concerns than engineers and operators.  Take station frequency. Today, the Northeast corridor between Boston and DC is Amtrak's most traveled corridor. It accommodates fast and slow trains and occasionally even a freight train. While this may bother operators and engineers who tend to look at speed, it allows a seamless system in which users can easily move from one type of train to another on the same corridor. Stations slow trains down, but the nicest train is useless if there is no nearby station. The fact that intercity, regional and local trains all move within the same corridor and network gives almost anybody in the corridor access.

This may sound trivial, but consider the proposed Maglev between Washington and Baltimore. It is supposed to stop only once, at BWI airport, and even that one stop is one too many on a 310 mph ride over a 30 miles distance.  As any rider on the current commuter trains knows, the bulk of riders on the way to DC don't use Amtrak but the local commuter train which allows them to board downtown but also on the many stops in between.   If the Amtrak Acela doesn't stop at the Newark airport, it is easy to take a local train from the city to the nearby airport stop.
Alignments: DC to Baltimore
What’s next
A federal analysis of the two proposed routes is expected this fall.Next year, a draft Environmental Impact Statement is expected to identify a preferred route. The public can comment.By 2020, the Federal Railroad Administration is expected to issue a final report saying which line, if either, should be built.If political leaders in Washington and Annapolis decided to back the project, its developers would have to come up with $10 billion to $15 billion to pay for it. (Baltimore SUN)
A big issue is cost. A full price ride on the commuter train from DC to Baltimore cost $8 each way. A trip on Maglev is estimated to be set at what Amtrak's Acela train costs today, anywhere between $50-$100 for the same 30 miles that cost $8 on the commuter train, clearly not an option for the masses.

Thus, Maglev fails on being able to attract masses because of geography and cost. In other words, it fails to meet two of the critical transportation needs. There are more psychological arguments as well.

It has become popular to say that "it is not about the destination, but about the journey". While this isn't typically applied to transportation (where it usually is all about the destination), there are certainly current lifestyle trends towards optimizing experience in just about anything we do. Thus slow food or a local coffee shop are brought into position against fast food chains or diner coffee. The experience of travel in trains belongs in this category. Once a train shoots like a bullet through or under the landscape the journey feels more like a ride on a subway. While this concern may sound overly esoteric, the attraction of high speed train travel in Europe has a lot to do with the fact, that it still caters to the allure that trains have always had.
In his intensive analysis on the feasibility of the Linear Shinkansen plan [the Tokyo to Osaka [Maglev], Hashiyama Reijiro considered three aspects: economic feasibility, technological reliability, and environmental appropriateness. He concluded that it was deficient in all three. In short it was a foolhardy project.The Linear (Maglev) Shinkansen and Abenomics
MARC commuter train: On conevntional rail into the hearts of our cities
 Maglev trains would run on a completely separate right of way and interface with the conventional train network would hit or miss. How much so shows the current environmental impact study underway fro the DC to Baltimore line. All three alignment alternatives show a Baltimore Maglev station on the southern periphery of town, far away from Amtrak's Penn Station near downtown. When I asked the Maglev study engineers at a recent open house, how the Maglev alignment would eventually continue north towards New York or how people arriving at the suggested Westport or Port Covington termini are supposed to continue their journey, they shrugged their shoulders and admitted that this was a good question. None of the exhibited materials broached this question and to this day I still haven't received an answer, even though I submitted it in writing. The only option today would be light rail or a bus: travel time around 30 minutes, minimum, about twice the time the entire Maglev trip was supposed to take.

By the time those Maglev travelers would finally reach Penn Station to continue their journey to Philly or NYC, the Acela traveler starting in DC at the same time would already see the outskirts of Wilmington, DE coming into view. Acela current travels maximally $150 mph, on some segments it has to slow to 30mph. With the billions needed to build even just the first leg of Maglev, the worst bottlenecks could be eliminated on the entire Amtrak Northeast Corridor (NEC) for better HSR. A better deal for all.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Useful links:
Baltimore SUN Maglev report
SC Maglev", NEPA process
Stop this train

Related Maglev articles on Community Architect:

Boondoggle Maglev

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

Another Politician awestruck by Maglev: Hogan in Asia

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