Wednesday, February 10, 2021

How the Baltimore SUN hijacked a Hopkins Study

 Johns Hopkins 21st Century City initiative recently published an analysis with the title: 
"Investing in High-Speed Rail to Washington, D.C. to Boost Baltimore’s Economy.”
 In the study it is suggested that MARC trains should be faster so they could leverage the real estate market differential between Baltimore and Washington. One of the study authors is Ron Hartman, from 1984-93 MTA administrator, later an Amtrak official and a CEO of Veolia Transportation and a current board member of the Baltimore Central Maryland Transportation Alliance (CMTA), a transit advocacy group. 
MARC Penn Line: In 48 minutes from Baltimore to DC for $8.00

The brief paper acknowledges that COVID and a 90% loss of riders on MARC trains will change the market potential between DC and Baltimore but still suggests that not enough is done to connect the two cities with fast and reliable transit. One can certainly agree, even though COVID has made the DC office worker a much less viable entity to fill Baltimore's empty rowhouses. Too many work for home now, and chances are, they will continue to do so in bigger numbers than before. Hence the empty MARC trains. 
A summary of the Mirage News service summarizes the paper this way:
“There are few pairs of neighboring cities in the United States such that one city is booming while the nearby city is struggling,” states the report, co-authored by Mac McComas, senior program manager at 21st Century Cities Initiative. “Just 40 miles to the north of economically booming Washington, D.C. lies economically struggling Baltimore City.”
That proximity “offers the possibility that an effective investment in cross-city transit could help residents of both cities to gain improvements in quality of life and economic vitality,” the report states. Faster train service would offer more affordable living options for D.C. residents struggling with skyrocketing costs while opening a lucrative job market to Baltimore residents.
The state has two options for providing faster MARC service: convert existing local trains to express schedules or adding new trains with limited or non-stop service. The authors note how the political timing could be right for pursuing such investments. President Joe Biden, a longtime champion and user of Amtrak, could usher in more federal investment in public transit through his administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Doing so would mesh with new Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott’s transportation initiatives.

The next generation Amtrak Acela Alstom train starting service this year
Amtrak Video

What did the Baltimore SUN make out of that study in their main editorial commentary on Wednesday?  They turned a paper about MARC into an argument for Maglev, the magnetically levitated trains that the Japanese want to desperately want to sell here! The SUN graced its commentary with this title: 

"What do you call a 311-mph train serving Baltimore? "

If Baltimore is to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and flourish in a way that it was not before the virus even arrived, what it needs most is for its residents to have better access to well-paying jobs. Expecting those jobs to suddenly plop down in Baltimore once herd immunity is achieved is beyond improbable. But what if the city could be served by a high-speed train that could get passengers from a station in Cherry Hill to the heart of Washington, D.C. and its wealth of employment opportunities in just 15 minutes? That may strike some as unlikely, too, but with Joe Biden in the White House, a proposed privately-operated maglev train serving the Northeast Corridor — beginning with Baltimore-Washington and capable of speeds of 311 miles per hour or more — suddenly doesn’t seem qu,ite so far-fetched. And the latest study from Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative lays out the argument for how Baltimore could receive an extraordinary economic boost from such a project.

The entire Hopkins paper never mentions Maglev once. Certainly no MARC train would ever do 311mph.The Hopkins paper authors even picked a place in Baltimore for its trip time comparison Balto to DC via car versus via train from where to start would be very disadvantageous for the Maglev train which is proposed to end at Westport/Cherry Hill and never make it to downtown Baltimore. 

What the SUN editorial did with the Hopkins study is really poor journalism. It graced its commentary  graced in its online edition with a Maglev train photo and pretended the study would make an argument for Maglev when that is far from true. Study author Hartman tells me he is no proponent of Maglev.  Taking the Hopkins study and put it into a totally different context is bad, but it is  also bad to merely advocate for the Maglev trains as a solution that would be of interest for those who would want to live in Baltimore and work in DC. That logic just doesn't hold up as will show below.

(As a small fix, the SUN later edited their online version to at least acknowledge that the Hopkins paper never mentions MagLev).  For those who don't know what Maglev means, here the explanation in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that released for public comment in December.

SC-MAGLEV is a transportation technology developed by the Central Japan Railway Company (JRC), but not currently in operation in the United States. The SCMAGLEV system relies on powerful magnetic forces to operate and results in travelling speeds of over 300 miles per hour. Unlike typical electric trains in service in the United States, a SCMAGLEV system does not operate on standard steel railroad tracks. (DEIS)

Maglev alignments shown in the DEIS
As I have commented many times in various blog articles (here and here), Maglev is a "future technology" of the distant past that Germany began hawking to the world some 50 years ago and that now Japan tries to sell so badly that they offered to pay a chunk of the huge $16.3 billion cost that a DC to Cherry Hill train would cost.

A 311mph train that starts in DC, stops at BWI and then at Cherry Hill serves no transportation purpose whatsoever! Least the budget conscious DC worker who would buy a house in Baltimore to save money. It wouldn't  serve people who board today's MARC commuter trains at Penn Station, in West Baltimore, in Halethorpe or in Odenton, all stations which very high boardings that Maglev would not serve becaue it is so busy being fast that it can't stop. 

It wouldn't serve New Carrolton either, an important intermodal node with lots of new development in the DC orbit. It would certainly cost as much as a ticket on Amtrak's ACELA trains which already travel as a high speed trains (38 minutes travel time) between DC and Baltimore for a minimum of $44 one way. (Compared to $8 on MARC). A fare way too high for the imaginary budget conscious DC worker moving to Baltimore! 

So Maglev doesn't serve the regular DC-Baltimore resident who wants to shuttle between the two metro areas. Would it serve the business traveler going up to Philly, New York or Boston? Nope! Riders who want to go to Philadelphia or New York would have to travel to Westport/Cherry Hill and then take a bus or Light Rail to trek from there to continue their trip. Something that nobody would do who could instead sit in a spanking new 150mph + AMTRAK train without any transfer. It is this confusion between long distance travel and local commuting that is the problem of the Maglev industry ever after they failed to sell any country a long distance solution. Thus the only magnetic leviated train in revenue service is an airport shuttle in Shanghai that is barely used because it duplicates a slower cheaper conventional shuttle. 

It is the blind adulation of speed and technology by folks like the SUN editorial board and Governor Hogan that has brought the Baltimore to DC Maglev boondoggle back from death multiple times over recent decades. This time all the way to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and two alternative alignments (one not recommended version would end at Camden Yards). And to be sure, the DEIS is administered by MDOT, MTA and the Federal Transit Administration who all have to spend useful resources on this nonsense. (DEIS comments can be made here).

True, President Biden is known to be a friend of trains, and also possible, there may come an ambitious investment in rail, for Amtrak, for MARC and for urban transit as part of a recovery investment package. many friends of better transportation hope for that. 

But any money and energy spent towards Maglev is money spent on subverting and undercutting the plans for better NE corridor AMTRAK high speed rail, for better Maryland commuter trains (MARC) and better bus and light rail connections between the two metro areas of DC and Baltimore. Anyone who says otherwise is just not telling the truth. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Japan started planning a long distance Maglev project  between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka in 1973. It was planned to open service on its first leg in 2027. That date is now uncertain due to COVID disruptions, questions about the future of business travel and a provincial government objecting to a tunnel for environmental reasons. 

Adding to the stalemate between Shizuoka and JR Central is the coronavirus pandemic, which has endangered the maglev project’s already questionable profitability.

In 2013, Yoshiomi Yamada, then-president of JR Central, admitted at a news conference that “there is no way” the maglev initiative will register a surplus on its own, and that the cost of building it is so huge that it can only barely be offset by revenues from the conventional Tokaido Shinkansen Line that it operates.

But COVID-19 has taken a toll on the firm’s prosperous high-speed train business, slashing passenger traffic by about 90 percent in April and May from a year earlier.

Moreover, the pandemic has “made many businesspeople realize they can replace their traditional trips with teleconferences,” Mitsuhiro Miyashita, chief consultant at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co., says. The normalization of online meetings, he says, suggests demand for conventional business trips via shinkansen won’t fully recover even after the pandemic has subsided.

This new normal is threatening to question the raison d’etre of the maglev shinkansen project itself, sparking skepticism among some toward the necessity of its 500-kph speed.

“We need to adapt to a new era,” Kawakatsu told Kaneko.

“The internet is faster than the maglev train, you know.” (The Japan Times)

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