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The high-speed ‘maglev’ promises many things, but at what cost?

Now that momentum is building for an ambitious plan to bring a high-speed “maglev” train system to the Washington region, questions are arising about its potential effect on existing rail services.

Will it siphon riders and public money from Amtrak, which is already struggling from cuts in federal funding? Or will it take pressure off “America’s railroad” as the Northeast grows by an estimated 7 million residents in the next two decades? Will it boost commuter rail service, easing congestion along the busy Northeast Corridor, or will the promise of a 60-minute trip between Washington and New York at speeds topping 311 mph be enough to kill the nearly 50-year-old institution?

“There are legitimate concerns and impacts,” said David Goldsmith, a Virginia Tech professor who studies new transportation technologies and advises students on the school’s Hyperloop team. Whether a maglev or hyperloop or any other high-speed alternative is built in the corridor, he said, the existing rail system will still be viable.

“Technologies like these aren’t replacements for traditional rail,” he said. “It is complementary. It frees up the capacity of existing infrastructure and reduces the impact on existing infrastructure, allowing it to be less expensive to maintain and less expensive to use.”

Officials have settled on 2 possible routes for the high-speed maglev, but project is still years away

Northeast Maglev, the team of private investors behind the project, have sold it as the high-speed alternative that will boost passenger-rail capacity in the Northeast — the nation’s busiest rail network.

Maglev officials say they are trying to pull neither customers nor funding from existing services. The Federal Railroad Administration concurs that the project is complementary to Amtrak, which connects Washington to Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston in the corridor.

Similarly, Northeast Maglev officials say, the maglev isn’t expected to take riders from the region’s commuter rail systems, including Maryland’s MARC, which serves stops between Washington and Baltimore, and targets commuters who live and work along the route.

“Amtrak and MARC will be around forever. They serve a particular market,” David Henley, project director of Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, told the Laurel City Council this month. “We will serve a different market. There is plenty of room in this corridor for everybody.” The group partners with Northeast Maglev.

Maglev, or “magnetic levitation,” is a system that harnesses powerful magnetic forces that lift and propel trains four inches above a U-shaped guideway.

FRA studies have yet to determine whether demand exists for a maglev line and whether enough riders from Amtrak and regional rail services — as well as people who travel via car — would choose maglev over their current modes of transportation. Those ridership studies also will determine whether the demand for maglev is significant enough for the system to be financially sustainable, project officials say.

The lack of ridership data has fueled doubt among skeptics of the project, who contend it will be impossible to build and operate without public money. And as the project inches forward, critics say they fear it could cast a shadow on the aging rail infrastructure shared by Amtrak, commuter and freight rail systems.

“We do not see how this train system can generate enough revenue to sustain itself without significant government funds. It is these funds that will be better leveraged with the Amtrak and MARC trains,” Suzzie Schuyler, president of a nonprofit association that represents more than 2,700 households in Anne Arundel County, told a panel of Maryland lawmakers at a recent hearing on two bills related to the project. “Amtrak is upgrading its system as we speak.”

Amtrak operates a nationwide passenger-rail network, serving more than 500 destinations across the United States, as well as in three Canadian provinces. The Northeast Corridor is the country’s largest and busiest rail corridor, carrying more than 750,000 passengers and 2,200 trains daily — including Amtrak, commuter and freight.

(Amtrak owns most of the track in the Northeast Corridor, but shares it with eight commuter and four freight systems.)

The railroad is planning upgrades to cut travel time and accommodate more passengers throughout its network. But modernizing the Northeast Corridor alone will require investments of $121 billion to $153 billion, according to an FRA report issued last summer.

In the Baltimore-Washington region, Amtrak is pursuing $250 million in investments that include the expansion and modernization of Union Station, as well as track and platform upgrades between the two cities.

“The plan to develop sufficient track capacity on the current corridor is set. It is not a question of whether it can be built. It is a question of needing to invest in it to make it happen,” said Amtrak Executive Vice President Stephen J. Gardner, who oversees Northeast Corridor infrastructure and investment development.

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Construction estimates for the maglev line, which would require carving out an entire new right of way, range between $10 billion and $12 billion for the 40-mile Washington-Baltimore stretch. Northeast Maglev and its sister company, Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail — which would develop and operate the train — say they have secured financial commitments, including $5 billion from Japan. Company officials have said they also would seek federal loans or grants for the project.

The FRA has narrowed down to two possible route alignments for the project as it moves forward in a federal review process to select a preferred route and construction process for the Washington-to-Baltimore leg. The federal government’s next step would be giving clearance for tunneling to begin as early as 2020 and operations in 2027. Extending the line to New York could take decades.

Some Maryland officials say it doesn’t hurt to explore alternatives to Amtrak.

“We have maxed out on what we can do with the Amtrak Northeast Corridor,” said Del. Robert L. Flanagan (R-Howard), a former Maryland transportation secretary. “There’s only so much you can do that is feasible and practical in improving the Amtrak rail line and technology. It is outdated. It is constrained.”

Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn, who insists that the state won’t invest any tax dollars in the maglev project, said opening the door to new technologies can help solve problems with the region’s transportation system, which he said is inadequate and will only worsen as the region grows.

The Northeast Corridor is already so jammed with intercity, commuter and freight rail traffic that getting a slot for even an additional commuter train is difficult.

“If a lot of that travel is diverted to maglev, then it is going to free up our capacity on the existing system to accommodate commuter service,” Flanagan said. “Right now, we can’t. We have to wrestle opportunities to schedule more trains from Amtrak, who resists because they have their obligation to move people up and down that corridor.”

If the maglev or another alternative isn’t built, officials say, the pressure on Amtrak to accommodate travel between Washington and New York is going to be unmanageable.

“We are not going to be able to accommodate those people in a way that will benefit people’s quality of life or, frankly, the economy,” said Rahn, who rode Japan’s 27-mile Yamanashi maglev line during a 2015 trade mission with Gov. Larry Hogan (R). “That is why the administration has been open to the private sector bringing new ideas, new concepts to the state to try to solve some of these transportation dilemmas we have.”

Enthusiasm for ‘maglev’ train between D.C., Baltimore mounts — as does opposition

Federal transportation officials say adding tracks to some stretches of the corridor is critical so trains can operate in four- and even six-track configurations. Two proposed track projects are in Maryland, which has a two- and three-track right of way.

Meanwhile, increasing the speed of Amtrak trains will probably be a challenge. The railroad has ordered 28 next-generation, high-speed trains capable of operating at traveling up to 186 mph, and are scheduled to be in service by 2022. But track improvements will be needed to maximize the potential of those trains for Acela service, Amtrak’s fastest. The Acela makes the trip from Washington to Baltimore in 32 minutes, and to New York’s Penn Station in just under three hours. Acela trains run at speeds up to 135 mph, but more than half of Amtrak trains operate at top speeds of 100 mph.

“Whether some other network services are built, it remains to be seen,” Amtrak’s Gardner said. “We feel confident that the Northeast Corridor and its services will continue to grow and be essential to the region.”