Maglev creates passion on both sides
MAGLEV, mountain test track into a 272-mile commercial line from Tokyo to Osaka by 2037.
For nearly a decade, the company also has been working with a team of wellconnected U.S. partners to lay the groundwork for a second maglev line along the Northeast Corridor, perhaps some day to Boston. In its first phase, they say, it could transport travelers from Washington to Baltimore in 15 minutes, and later from Washington to New York in an hour, with stops along the way at BWI Marshall Airport and Philadelphia, among others.
It’s a proposal with the potential to dramatically alter the lives of people up and down the corridor, but particularly those in post-industrial Baltimore, which has lost population for decades and struggles to hold onto an economic base beyond the universities and hospitals that anchor it. Developers and other business interests in the city eye the train as a potential shot in the arm, allowing them to someday pitch their properties as the D.C. suburbs.
Equally passionate are the train’s opponents, who see it as a perk for the wealthy that would do nothing to improve the clogged highways and dysfunctional mass transit systems that most Central Maryland residents rely on. Maglev is a point of disagreement between friends and neighbors, and between political candidates. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan supports exploring the idea. Ben Jealous, Hogan’s Democratic challenger in the Nov. 6 election, adamantly opposes the project.
As the Japanese maglev project has gotten off the ground, the U.S. proposal — long considered a half-cocked fantasy in Washington power circles and gritty Baltimore bars — has gained momentum, too.
In 2015, the Obama administration provided a $28 million grant for a study of the Baltimore to Washington proposal. Hogan’s administration agreed to sponsor Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail, a U.S. company that would operate the proposed line, through the federal review process.
And the state’s Public Service Commission granted BWRR rights to operate a railroad through the region using a longdormant franchise that was abandoned in 1935 by the now-defunct Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railroad Co.
The number of potential routes for the new maglev line was narrowed to two earlier this year, and a more detailed analysis of the routes — both of which would be more than two-thirds tunnel and follow the Route 295 corridor — is due out this fall. Congress, meanwhile, is considering an additional $150 million appropriation for maglev projects, which BWRR officials say would be enough to push their proposal through engineering and possibly into construction.
From there, it would take another $10 billion to $15 billion, by BWRR’s calculations, to actually build the line from Washington to Baltimore — much of which would have to come from federal coffers, even if the project attracts massive private investment.
The project’s Japanese backers, at JR Central and in the Japanese government, know that gives sticker shock to many U.S. officials and taxpayers. But they are highly motivated to see the U.S. project move forward, in part because it would help them realize economies of scale in the production of their own line in Japan. And it would create a more global market for the maglev expertise they’ve developed within their workforce.
To soften the potential financial pain, JR Central — which had more than $12 billion in operating revenues in 2017 from its existing Japanese rail business — has offered to waive licensing fees for BWRR’s use of its technology. It has also promised to assist the Maryland company in securing billions of dollars in low-interest Japanese loans to float as much as half the construction costs.
“We are prepared to make an all-out effort to support them from a technology point of view,” said Shun-ichi Kosuge, JR Central’s executive vice president.
With the Japanese support, a mix of additional private investments and billions in grants and loans from the U.S. government, BWRR officials say they can reach full financing. If all goes well, they say, they could start construction on the Washington-to-Baltimore leg as early as 2020 and potentially open it by 2027, the same year the first leg of the Japanese line is to open.
They contend the benefits of the rail line warrant the needed federal support.
Backers say the train would ease highway congestion, free up airspace, cut down on lost hours and increase American productivity. They say it would revitalize postindustrial cities like Baltimore, reduce carbon emissions from cars and planes, provide a new industry for unionized labor, and make the U.S. a global leader in high-speed rail. They say construction and operation of the line would create more than 200,000 jobs.
More ominously, they argue that it is necessary to help prevent almost-certain economic stagnation between Washington and New York in coming years if nothing is done to alleviate growing congestion.
“It’s a big investment. It’s a lot of money. But the idea is to shrink the geography,” Patterson said. “It’s about transformation, not transportation.”
Critics of the proposal — and there are many — say proponents vastly underestimate its many costs, and overstate its benefits. They say a maglev line will disrupt neighborhoods and communities, making them less safe and less desirable places to live. The train will blow through their towns, they say, without stopping or providing any local benefits. They fear it will fail to attract sufficient ridership, and Both proposed maglev routes leave Baltimore near Westport and use tunnels for more than two-thirds of the distance to Washington. One runs along the eastern side of Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the other along the western side. The site of a station in each city is still unclear. that BWRR will have to be bailed out by taxpayers.
They argue that the massive undertaking likely would require billions more in federal backing than BWRR currently estimates. And they question the very premise of building a 40-mile train line for $15 billion — enough money to pay for thousands of miles of new highways, for example, or the entire Baltimore schools budget for more than a decade.
One citizens group launched a Change.org petition to halt the project, calling it a “boondoggle” and attracting nearly 1,800 signatures.
“We don’t see how the hell they’re going to generate enough revenue to cover the costs,” said Dan Woomer, a 66-year-old Linthicum resident and a member of the group.
“Not only is it, ‘You're going to disturb my backyard,’ but even more importantly, we feel it is a project that is not going to benefit the local community,” said Steve Skolnik, president of Greenbelt Homes, a historic cooperative in one potential path of the train.
“It’s scary,” said Keisha Allen, 43, president of the Westport Neighborhood Association in Baltimore, who fears being displaced by the project. “I’m waiting for the shoe to drop, that it’s going to be something bad, and that we’ll have to find an attorney — like we have the money for that.”
Officials at BWRR say they appreciate community concerns and will continue working to alleviate them as the federal review moves forward. But they also assert that their plan is financially sound, and that community disruptions will be minimal in comparison to the overall benefits to the region. They note that much of the train’s path would be 10 stories underground.
Wayne Rogers, the former Maryland Democratic Party chairman who is BWRR’s chairman and CEO, says the project’s costs are manageable with the right financing structure on the front end. He insists the company does not need — and doesn’t plan to ask for — any ongoing government subsidies to offset future operating costs, unlike existing mass transit in the region.
The U.S. would be foolish not to take advantage of five decades of Japanese development and accept JR Central’s generous help, he says — and before the Northeast stalls out.
“Let’s take their train, take the advantage of all of that, lift it up, bring it into our corridor, and really transform everything,” Rogers said. “It can be done.” It’s the stuff of science fiction. When cooled to minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit, a titanium alloy becomes a powerful super-magnet. Built into a train, such magnets interact with others in the walls of a guideway — producing forces so strong they not only propel the train forward at record-breaking speed, but keep it perfectly centered along its track and 3.9 inches off the ground.
It will never derail, railroad officials say — even in the event of an earthquake, and even if power is cut to the system.
Riding the maglev doesn’t diminish its otherworldliness. When the train rumbles