TSURU, Japan — Imagine getting from Baltimore to Washington in less than 15 minutes. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan certainly did Thursday when he hurtled through the Japanese countryside at 314 mph.
Hogan wants Maryland to get these “maglev” trains — short for magnetic levitation — and Japan wants to sell them.
“There is no question that this is the future of transportation,” Hogan, a pro-business Republican whose victory in November shocked his heavily Democratic state, said after taking four trips along the 26-mile test track near Mount Fuji.
If he’s right, it’s an expensive future — even many in Japan are balking at the multibillion-dollar cost of the fast new trains. And in the United States, such trains would face daunting questions concerning not only cost (and more importantly, who would bear it) but the need to find a right of way through the most congested and perhaps litigious part of the country. It would take an unusual amount of national willpower to make the idea a reality.
Japan is already renowned for its shinkansen bullet trains, which whiz between the main cities at speeds of up to 200 mph, are almost always perfectly on time and have not had a fatal accident in 50 years of operation.
But the maglev is something else.
Visiting the test site Thursday, Hogan walked past departure screens showing imaginary journeys to Baltimore (“on time”) and boarded a train that still had that new-car smell. As the train picked up speed, screens inside the car showed the view from cameras on the front of the fully automated train, which doesn’t have a windshield because there’s no driver who needs to see out.
The train quickly hit 150 mph — the top speed of Amtrak’s Acela — and passed through 200, then 300 mph. It topped out at 314, well below the world record of
374 mph that the maglev hit during tests in April.
The point of Thursday’s runs was not to prove how fast these trains can go but rather to convince Hogan that Maryland needs them. And Hogan, who inherited the proposed maglev project when he took office in January, seemed convinced.
“It’s the most advanced technology in the world,” said the governor, who has focused much of his energy on giving Maryland’s business climate a boost. He said traveling from Baltimore to Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport in five minutes or from Washington in eight minutes could be “incredibly transformative” for the region.
The Japanese maglev trains start moving on wheels. When they hit a certain speed, magnets push the cars up almost four inches above the guideways and propel the train forward without the friction associated with traditional tracks. When it slows down to
200 mph, it feels like the train is barely moving. Then when it reverts to using its wheels, passengers feel a bump akin to a gentle airplane landing.
Japan Railways is already working on plans to build a maglev line between Tokyo and Nagoya, 200 miles away, to start running in 2027. The journey time, currently 100 minutes by shinkansen and just over four hours by car, would be cut to 40 minutes.
The problem, on both sides of the Pacific, is money.
In Japan, there are critics who say that the shinkansen is perfectly adequate and that the country does not need to spend the billions of dollars that would be needed to build a maglev system. The cost of building the line to Nagoya is estimated at almost $50 billion, largely because it would require tunneling through many mountains along the way.
For the United States, maglev technology is much more expensive than building a shinkansen line or any of the other high-speed options the Obama administration has been promoting.
A 40-mile maglev line between Baltimore and Washington would cost at least $10 billion.
Japanese media have reported that the government has offered $5 billion in financial backing for a Maryland line, while Central Japan Railway Co., the train operator, has said it will not charge any licensing fees for the technology.
The Northeast Maglev, a Washington-based company that is behind the project, would have to raise the remainder from public and private sources. In 2010, the Federal Railroad Administration turned down Maryland’s bid for $1.7 billion in funding for the maglev project, declaring it “not ready.” Maryland is now angling for grants to conduct new studies.
Hogan, who is at the end of a 12-day trip that also took him to South Korea and China, met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before he went on the maglev, but he declined to comment on the specifics of any financing deal — including whether Maryland would be expected to cover part of the costs.
Hogan is expected to decide later this month whether to pull the plug on a different long-planned transit project, the light-rail Purple Line that would connect Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. As a candidate and since taking office, he has criticized the overall cost of the Purple Line and questioned whether it is a wise investment for the state.
But as for the maglev, the state government is “very interested in studying it further and taking it to the next level,” he said, and the Japanese government is “very interested in being involved in financing the project.”
The two leaders agreed on a “memorandum of cooperation” that addresses liquefied natural gas exports to Japan, scientific and cultural exchanges — and maglev rail.
Certainly, Japan is also desperate to sell the high-tech trains. Abe has been busy touting its rail technology as part of his plan to get the world’s third-largest economy back on track.
In addition to promoting maglev for the Northeast corridor, when he visited the United States in April, Abe tried to persuade California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to choose Japanese companies to build a $68 billion high-speed non-maglev railway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A separate project is underway to sell Japanese trains to Texas, linking Dallas and Houston.
But, as with so many things in Japan, this is also about China.
China is fast catching up with Japan when it comes to train technology, and its companies are also looking for export opportunities.
In a time of increasing concerns about China, Abe has suggested that the maglev could stand as a testament to the strong alliance between the United States and Japan. “I have just proposed to President Obama that this technology be introduced to the Northeast part of the United States as a symbol of Japan-U.S. cooperation,” he said last year on the 50th anniversary of the shinkansen, a train he said was “symbolic of safety and peace of mind.”
In the wake of the Amtrak accident near Philadelphia that killed eight people last month, Japan’s safety record could be its strongest selling point. Asked about the crash, Hogan said that “one of the beautiful things about this technology is that an accident like that couldn’t happen.”
“You can’t have driver error because there is no driver,” Hogan said.
For his part, Hogan seemed sold. As he left the maglev site on Thursday evening, he joked to his Japanese counterparts: “You had me at 314 miles per hour.”