tech maglev high_speed_rail rail trains transport transportation
U.S. Maglev Train Development Stymied by Little Support

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by Jim Motavalli

The seemingly magical magnetic-levitation (maglev) train, cruising at ultra-high speeds a few inches above the track rather than on it, is capable of hitting 250 to 300 mph because there’s no friction. They use electro- and permanent magnets to induce currents in the guideway, creating an air cushion that the cars ride on. The technology is expensive, and high costs have killed some maglev projects (including a Berlin to Munich line in 2008), but this train of tomorrow has long since moved past the experimental stage.

But the rail innovation that was invented by Americans, strangely, has taken off just about everywhere but in the U.S., where there’s nothing but test tracks and ambitious plans.

The Central Japan Railway, for instance, recently showed off a maglev train capable of more than 310 mph that’s designed to link Tokyo’s central Shinagawa Station with Nagoya circa 2027. A conventional bullet train now takes 90 minutes to run the route, but the maglev will do the trip in 40.

When a planned Tokyo-to-Osaka line is added to the Japanese maglev train, it could cost $100 billion, including the kind of government investment not likely to clear Congress in 2013. 

Shanghai’s maglev train (to central Pudong District) has been in commercial service since 2004, and at a peak of 268 mph has long been the fastest passenger train in the world, beating the mighty TGV in France. The Chinese may soon be traveling even faster if a maglev train that travels in an airless vacuum tube is realized. It’s supposed to be capable of more than 600 mph, duplicating air travel.

The patent on the “evacuated tube transport” vacuum train, granted in 1999, belongs to Daryl Oster of ET3, who teaches mechanical engineering at Walla Walla College in Washington State. He’s an interesting guy, a former stockbroker and member of the Crystal River City Council. Oster belongs to a long tradition of Americans who pioneered maglev and saw it developed elsewhere.

Americans Robert Goddard and Emile Bachelet (who had emigrated to the U.S. from France in the 1880s) developed the concept. Goddard first described the principle in 1907, and Goddard built the first working model in 1912. To give credit where it’s due, a scientist in Nazi Germany, Hermann Kemper, advanced the concept of a “monorail with no wheels attached” in the 1930s, long before Americans James Powell and Gordon Danby got the first patent in 1968. And it was the Japanese who built the first five-mile test line in 1977.

Support needed to take off

But despite extensive government support for maglev abroad—Germany and Japan alone have invested more than $1 billion—it’s never gotten consistent funding in the U.S. After federal funding was terminated in 1975, the National Maglev Initiative was passed in 1990 as a joint Department of Energy/Department of Transportation project to study the issue. Three years later, it finished up its work and concluded:

“U.S. industry can develop an advanced U.S. maglev system.”

A U.S. maglev system “has the potential for revenues to exceed lifecycle costs in one corridor, and to cover operating costs and a substantial portion of capital costs in others. The high initial investment will require substantial public assistance.”

A U.S. maglev system “would provide an opportunity to develop new technologies and industries with possible benefits for U.S. businesses and the work force.”

It also concluded that commercial American maglev is unlikely to happen “without significant federal government investment,” and that’s not in the cards with the current anti-train atmosphere in Washington. High-speed rail, despite enthusiastic support from the Obama administration (with or without maglev—just electrifying the rails is a big hurdle), has become a political football, with some states even returning already appropriated funds for high-speed corridors. In 2003, for instance, Florida Governor Jeb Bush rejected legislature-approved funding for Florida. Governor Rick Scott turned away $2 billion in 2011 that would have helped run a line between Tampa and Orlando. 

High-speed rail would appear to have the greatest chance of early success in California, where Governor Jerry Brown has been an enthusiastic proponent.

As Ecomagination has reported, we do not lack proposed maglev rail corridors. Routes have been vetted connecting the Pittsburgh International Airport to the city of Greensburg (and, eventually, Philadelphia). An Atlanta-Chattanooga route of 110 miles has also been floated, at a projected cost of $6 to $9 billion. The American Magline Group wants to connect Anaheim and Las Vegas.

Leaning toward steel-on-steel

But in a blow to maglev advocates, the Federal Railroad Administration has decided that high-speed rail is likely to be a steel-on-steel proposition for the U.S. (if it happens at all). To be sure, electric trains running conventionally on tracks can still be plenty fast—200 mph is possible—but eventually friction is going to take a toll.

Dr. Christopher Barkan, executive director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was asked by NPR about the forthcoming national high-speed rail grid. “I don’t think it’s going to be maglev,” he said last year, pointing out that even the mag-lev-loving Chinese are using fast steel wheels on rail for the bulk of their national system—because it saves money.

Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transit Association (APTA) said that to succeed, maglev would need a national constituency. “It’s hard for Congress to support something without a very broad base,” he said. “It’s not going to vote for just one maglev corridor. If there’s private funding, that can work in one specific area.”

APTA is technology neutral, so its main concern is simply to get some form of high-speed rail in place, and Guzzetti is bullish that it will happen. “In 1980, we had seven light-rail systems in the U.S., now we have 36,” he said. “There were nine commuter rail trains, now there’s 29. The market is a lot stronger for rail than it was 30 years ago, and we’re looking for it to be better still. People are supporting more transit, and we will have more passenger rail.”

Maglev still has important support internationally. According to Fast Company, new maglev trains are being studied for Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Europe and Australia. In the U.S., the biggest promise comes from an “Inductrak” electrodynamic suspension system developed by General Atomics in California that favors permanent magnets over electromagnets. The Department of Transportation has put some funding into the system, under development for more than five years.

General Atomics has a 400-foot-long test track near Torrey Pines that proves the concept, and running on it is the only functioning maglev train in the United States. But it’s currently a train to nowhere, with rides taking only 22 seconds. As Popular Mechanics points out, the potential is there—a train like American Magline’s could carry passengers from Anaheim to Las Vegas in 90 minutes, trumping the current four- to six-hour drive.

The only other major news is last year’s proposal by American Maglev to run a $344 million train from Orlando International Airport to a local SunRail stop, the Florida Mall, and the convention center.

The Florida installation would be a far cry from the heights of international maglev—trains would reach the heady speed of 50 mph (with patrons paying $13 one way). American Maglev CEO Tony Morris says he can build the system without government assistance, but he wants to use public right of ways now owned by the airport, county and Expressway Authority. “This is the ultimate e-ticket ride,” Morris told Fox’s Orlando station.

In 2011, the Japanese government offered to help fund a maglev train between Washington and New York, which seems kind of humiliating (though welcome). Of course, there’s the possibility that we’d then spend billions on Japanese-built trains for the line. That Bos-Wash Corridor train would take an hour, instead of the current four.

Old railway maps unearthed by Treehugger show that our trains today aren’t any faster than they were 80 years ago. “We’ve made zero progress in the speed of our rail travel since 1930,” the story said. “It still takes three days to get from New York to the West Coast by rail.” It’s no wonder that cross-country Amtrak service is losing money, because it’s hopelessly outmoded. Maglev trains could change that, but don’t expect them running in the land of their birth anytime soon.

Top Image: Magnetic levitation train travels at almost 268 mph (431 kmh) through suburban Shanghai, China, via Shutterstock.


imageJim Motavalli is the author of “
High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry“ and is a contributor to The New York Times’ automobiles section. He writes “Green Living” for the Environmental Defense newsletter and has contributed to Popular Mechanics, Salon and Grist. 

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    Sad.
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    I’d love for Texas to reconsider a high speed rail system linking DFW, Houston, San Antonio and Austin in a triangle....
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    'Murica
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