DOT Expands Funding For Studies on U.S. Maglev Corridors

United States Maglev Projects and Funding

» Projects in Georgia, Pennsylvania get millions; Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Baltimore still waiting to hear.

One clear demonstration of the United States’ lack of coherent national transportation policy objectives is its approach to funding magnetic levitation train projects. Rather than making a decision about what to fund, the Congress occasionally appropriates a relatively small pot of money, then the DOT distributes cash for planning studies. Nothing ever gets off the ground.

That, at least, is how it has worked since 1999, when the DOT first awarded $12 million in planning funds to seven proposed projects in California, Nevada, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. By 2001, the agency announced it would pick either a line between Baltimore and Washington or one connecting Pittsburgh and its suburbs for almost $1 billion in construction dollars, eventually deciding on the latter. By 2005, however, all funds had been cut off by an uncommitted congress, despite the fact that $62 million had already been distributed; meanwhile, states and municipalities had contributed virtually nothing to the projects. Maglev seemed dead.

The news this month that Atlanta and Pittsburgh have received more planning funds — $14 million for the former and $28 million for the latter — and that other projects funded back in 1999 may once again get appropriations in the coming days seems like a continuation of this destructive cycle. If so, these dollars are nothing more than a waste of money, because there is little chance that funds for actual construction will ever appear. Yet the Congress devoted $90 million maglev two years ago, knowing that actually getting big-budget funds for the projects’ completion from Washington would be almost impossible. Nor has there ever been a concerted effort by either Congress or the Department of Transportation to show why maglev projects should be funded at all.

What’s saddest about this seemingly mindless distribution of money is that it comes just before the U.S. will announce the first appropriations from its $8 billion high-speed rail program — including to projects that might compete directly with sections of the proposed maglev lines. What is it then? If the federal government is going to be spending money on new rail lines, it should at least come to a conclusion about which specific project it wants to fund, rather than wasting money on competing ones.

Perhaps more problematic is the fact that there is a very limited business case for maglev compared to traditional high-speed rail; unlike electric-catenary rail-running trains, maglev features expensive, proprietary technology that is completely incompatible with existing lines, so improvements in one location will only affect commuters in that area. A Baltimore-Washington maglev project does not help commuters between Washington and Philadelphia, unless they are willing to transfer in Baltimore; on the other hand, speeding up the existing tracks between the first two cities would be quite effective for reducing travel times for everyone in the corridor.

A recent study of a proposed maglev line between LAX Airport and Ontario Airport, via downtown Los Angeles, demonstrated very few advantages of a potential magnetic line over a traditional one — it would be only about 10% faster, would attract only 10% more customers, but would cost an eye-popping 60% more to build. Worse, the maglev corridor would have no direct connections with the planned (and partially funded!) California High-Speed Rail project. Considering that the DOT still has $45 million to devote to maglev projects west of the Mississippi, it seems likely that this Los Angeles maglev — competing with an underdeveloped Gulf Coast project and a connection between Las Vegas and California, a political third rail — will get at least several million in funds this year for further studies, no matter the project’s benefits.

The two projects approved for funding last week aren’t any better. The Pittsburgh line would run between its airport, the city center, and the small suburban towns of Monroeville and Greensburg, a 54-mile route that would take 35 minutes to traverse. The corridor in Georgia would connect Atlanta and Chattanooga, with the ultimate goal of extending the line to Chicago, according to conservative Congressman Zach Wamp (R-TN), who is a major project proponent. Why are these lines the priorities for U.S. maglev funding? The answer appears to be the fact that the projects being proposed in the U.S. are so weak in general that the DOT’s $90 million just has to be distributed… somewhere.

The DOT should not waste millions of dollars on planning studies for projects that have been under consideration for a decade unless there is a reliable possibility that their construction will ever be funded. You wouldn’t fund a study to consider an underwater sea-city, because it’s obvious that the government would never pay for it to be built. The Congress has never committed wholeheartedly to maglev; even support for traditional high-speed rail may be more precarious than its supporters may assume. But the lack of a long-term engagement with maglev is probably a good thing, since the mode generally makes little sense as an alternative. Nonetheless, it is too bad that Congressional priorities seem more focused on making a statement in favor of a project than in actually seeing it through.

Update, 17 September:

The federal government has awarded $45 million in planning studies to the Las Vegas-Anaheim maglev proposal. This is a surprise considering how politically volatile the project has been in the past and comes despite the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood have come out against the maglev proposal, in favor of the alternative traditional high-speed rail Desert Xpress project. The choice of the Vegas line reaffirms the argument made above, that is, that the federal government is simply throwing money around. We all know that no one is going to commit to actually building the Las Vegas maglev line. The administration is giving away talking points to Republicans…

Update, 21 September:

To add to the general confusion over the selection of Las Vegas for maglev funds, the Federal Railroad Administration is now denying that it has made an award or decision for the project, according to the Review Journal. On the other hand, those interviewed in the article still think it will get the money this week nonetheless.

35 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • BLambert

    Accoring to what I’ve read at trains4america, the money is apparently going primarily to the EIS for both corridors, which isn’t *entirely* wasted, should the projects get converted to steel-wheel rail.

    I don’t know about the PA project, but the Atlanta-Chattanooga corridor is at least under consideration for steel-wheel HSR (which would be an interesting starting point for an Atlanta-based southeast HSR network), so there may be some spillover.

    Still, it’s a bit of a boondoggle.

  • Patrick

    Just out of curiosity, what are the dashed lines on your map? They don’t look like anyone’s high-speed rail corridors (Birmingham isn’t linked to Atlanta).

  • Patrick

    Oh, I should read the labels first. Sorry.

  • So “…the DOT should not waste millions of dollars on planning studies for projects that have been under consideration for a decade unless there is a reliable possibility that their construction will ever be funded.” Why not? Who’s to say maglev planning projects will never eventually be built? Using these guidelines the California HSR project would’ve been in jeopardy well before 2006, ten years after being officially formed and two years before the voters approved the first ballot initiative on bonding.

    In 2000-2001, when the first round of studies under the Maglev Deployment Program were completed, the Chinese were just building the world’s first high-speed maglev line in Shanghai, so planners in the U.S. were just keeping abreast of the world’s activities by considering maglev here.

    Besides, the grants announced this week actually were included in the original 2005 SAFETEA-LU bill, around the time you say — and I agree — maglev seemed dead. With the distribution of planning funds on this sort of timetable, no wonder projects take so long to get built.

  • EngineerScotty

    Maglev has always struck me as the railroad equivalent of the Concorde.

    How do they do energy-wise? While they do avoid rolling resistance by not touching the ground, at the speeds they attain, air drag is a significant issue. And powering electromagnets requires a lot of electricity.

  • AlexB

    Maglev is a fascinating technology, but because it is so proprietary, it has to be all or nothing. Given the distances between major population centers and the current state of our railroads, I would be totally open to effectively starting over with a maglev system in areas of the US that don’t have well developed passenger rail corridors (everything outside the northeast, midwest and California.)

    One of the major problems with using maglev in Europe is that the existing railroad ROWs are well used for passengers and it is nearly impossible to find space for a new ROW to a city center for a maglev line. In probably 80% of the US, the existing railroads are lightly used, or not used at all, and in bad condition. The rails on these ROWs could be removed and replaced with maglev lines. This is effectively what you have to do for genuine high speed rail anyway, so why not use the most advanced technology?

    I don’t think maglev lines cost 60% more than brand new high speed rail. I know it is more, but I don’t think it is that much. I have read that maglev lines are cheaper to maintain in the long run, and I think they can be faster than 10% over high speed rail. According to wikipedia, the Chuo Shinkansen will operate at 310 mph, much higher than the 220 mph of California’s proposed line. At those speeds, cross country travel in the US can be achieved, with a trip from Kansas City to Denver or from Dallas to Albequerque being made in about 3 hours. If a maglev line will eventually pay for its higher initial cost in terms of saved money on maintenance, and there is little to no existing passenger rail infrastructure to be compatible with, I don’t see why the US can’t be the future home of an interstate maglev system.

  • simple

    If the Chinese, who have the only functioning maglev in revenue service and boatloads of $ to spend on rail, aren’t expanding their one maglev line, that should be a big red flag for the good old USA, where there is not even one true conventional HSR line yet. Also, if the Japanese haven’t yet figured out how to get maglev built in highest demand passenger rail corridor in the world (Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka), it should be another great big red flag for the USA. Also, if Germany, technological leaders in advanced railways, have abandoned their pursuit of maglev, it’s yet another red flag for us.

    The best we can hope for is that these Congressionally-funded maglev studies end up showing that conventional steel wheel on steel rail HSR is the way to go. Leave the experimental technologies to developed railway countries like Japan, Germany, and China! Once they perfect it, we can seriously consider deploying it over here (and not have to waste decades chasing this dubious holy grail in the meantime).

  • Patrick M

    $90 miliion down the drain. Period. I attended the Transportation Research Board in DC a few years back and watched the Europeans explain in great detail why the continent was giving up on maglev. In short, the answers are incredible costs for marginal speed increases over TGV style HSR, lack of interoperability with existing systems, and did I mention cost?

    Check out the EU’s TEN-T transport networks strategy. (oh, if the US only had something like this!) Visit the webpage below, and download the 14 MB PDF of the priority Axes across the continent. You will find thousands of km of HSR track and ZERO instances of maglev being built.

    http://ec.europa.eu/transport/infrastructure/maps/maps_en.htm

  • @ EngineerScotty: Energy-wise, it is generally accepted that maglevs consume 20-30% less energy when compared to high-speed rail at the same running speeds, and of course they consume more power as speeds increase over 190-200 mph. Air drag, as you say, is a significant issue that all exposed transport systems must handle. On powering electromagnets, the German Transrapid requires 0.53 watt per pound of levitated weight, so an empty, five-section Transrapid would need roughly 60 kW for levitation.

    @ AlexB: I don’t believe it’s necessarily true that “because [maglev] is so proprietary, it has to be all or nothing.” We generally say that civil construction will be 60-70% of any capital cost total, and that portion of the work is always done locally. In the remaining 30-40% of the system, the real “know-how” that is proprietary to the supplier is probably no more than 10-20% of the remaining cost. So I wouldn’t get too upset if the U.S. sacrifices less than 10% of the total capital cost for a new maglev line. (I’ll bet we do that in the BMW, Mercedes and Honda automobile plants in the U.S., too.)

    @ simple: The Chinese may still extend the Shanghai line; we just don’t know yet. The Japanese announced plans to build high-speed maglev between Tokyo and Nagoya earlier this year, and commercial service is set to begin in 2025. And Germany hasn’t abandoned their pursuit of maglev; they’ve just admitted to themselves that a system inside Germany is a long way off. International sales and marketing efforts have not been abandoned.

  • DBX

    Maglev looks great in theory. But the reality is of country after country delaying or curtailing implementation. I think it’s worth considering the implications of maglev in the Midwest. Let’s say Illinois eventually does follow the recent proposal to upgrade to 220mph HSR from Chicago to St. Louis using mostly existing right of way. The most important thing to consider is the final approach to Chicago, because that’s where you see the greatest potential for serious infrastructure costs. You can either:

    a) use the newly almost disused freight tracks on the already completely grade-separated former Illinois Central main line from Richton to downtown and the St. Charles Airline to get to the Union Station area, and your only serious costs are electrification and reconfiguring the Airline so that it feeds directly into Union Station or wherever they decide to place high speed platforms, instead of forcing trains to back. or

    b) spend a great deal of money upgrading the existing Chicago-Joliet route to something minimally acceptable, grade-separated etc. or

    c) spend even more money building a completely new Maglev line into the city.

    A key reason the Europeans have passed on Maglev is that they can’t take the easy way out and route high-speed trains through the suburbs and inner city on existing track. Perhaps even more telling is the way the Spanish, whose broad gauge denied them the luxury of using existing track to access existing terminals, still went with steel wheels anyway. Despite our decimation of passenger rail infrastructure we still have many major downtown terminals in the US (not to mention Canada) that are easily accessible on existing track, and that alone gives the steel wheels approach a major leg up with regard to affordability.

  • jon

    maglev is a little pie in the sky in my book but hey if its what parts of the US prefer and is what it will take for them to support alternatives to the automobile its certainly great with me. its kind of like the monorail, the general public absolutely loves monorail and if its what it takes to get middle america interested in and riding transit whom otherwise wouldnt use transit then its got my full support.

  • Yonah, I’m pretty sure the costs in your map should be in billions, not millions. If it were possible to build maglev from Boston to Charlotte for $13 million, it would’ve been done a long time ago. Coming to think of it, even $13 billion is dirt cheap for Boston-Charlotte – at normal HSR costs, Washington-Charlotte would be $16 billion, and Boston-Washington about $7 billion.

  • Alon –
    Sorry if it’s confusing! It is meant to show how much the U.S. has already contributed to these projects.

  • Patrick M

    I admire Laurence’s determination, but as is usually the case, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a financial stake in the promotion of maglev promoting maglev as a transportation investment choice.

  • AndyDuncan

    MagLev still needs to prove its viability as a technology before we start putting lines in. Tokyo-Osaka is an incredibly special case with geological and ridership factors that make Maglev look attractive, and it hasn’t even been started yet. The shanghai airport line was an ego project. Either the government needs to sink money into developing the technology, or we need to stop throwing money at fantasy lines that could be better served with steel-whel HSR.

    I also don’t see any reason to be funding segments that aren’t designated HSR corridors.

  • trainsintokyo

    One thing to keep in mind about JR Central’s maglev project is that it will be entirely privately funded, making comparisons between it and any potential projects in the US inappropriate (unless there is a viable, 100% privately-funded maglev proposal of which I’m unaware).

    The only remaining issues to be solved with the Chuo Shinkansen (the maglev line) are which of three routes it will follow and the purchase of land along the selected route. Since much of it is mountainous, rural terrain there is much less controversy than if the line were built in an urbanized area like the Northeast US.

  • political_incorrectness

    As per usual with the United States, if it makes too much sense, it never happens. This is just another case of that.

  • NikolasM

    No, it really really doesn’t and that is why it doesn’t exist anywhere outside of a couple of demonstration tracks and a small line in China.

  • ebbpgh

    From a Pittsburgh perspective, this project is a COLLOSAL waste of money. The 2003 cost estimate for the 54 mile system mentioned in the post was $3.75 billion. Imagine what the cost would be today (I guess we’ll find out, part of the $28 million is to update costs from the last study).

    Even at 2003 estimates, the cost would be an insane $69-70 million per mile (approx). Imagine the subsidies that would be involved to cover capital/operating expenses.

    However unlikely, I drool at the thought of what type of “lower grade” transportation system Pittsburgh could get for the amount of money being quoted for a single MAGLEV line.

  • Nathanael

    Oy. Money down the drain.

    BTW, the HSR plan for Chicago involves using the abandoned trackbed next to the Norfolk Southern line from Union Station to Grand Crossing, then the Illinois Central line south and the abandoned tracks east through Indiana.

    Easy to do with HSR; we could have the whole thing built by now if anyone would put up a couple hundred million.. But the existing rail tracks have to cross over the new ones in several places for occasional train movements…. no-no with maglev. Conventional HSR can go into Union Station… maglev needs a new terminal. Conventional HSR can cross over onto existing underused train lines to head for Detroit and the East Coast…. maglev needs all-new, all-grade separated lines all the way to its destination.

  • All HSR needs full grade separation.

  • EngineerScotty

    Trains moving at 120MPH can produce drafts which are capable of literally sucking people nearby under the wheels. To support safe operation at that speed, a line needs to keep people (and animals and objects) WAY the hell away from the tracks; crossing gates are not enough.

    Even if powered by overhead catenary or internal combustion, HSR lines call for the same safety protocols as third-rail powered lines; any exposed track is a danger to the public.

  • EngineerScotty, do you have a link for what you say about drafts? Even the paranoid FRA allows grade crossings up to 125 mph, as long as they’re protected by an impenetrable barrier.

  • #20: You get what you pay for. You want shared track or HSR running on commuter/freight lines, great. You’ll never have true HSR. You want 190-200 mph HSR, you need dedicated tracks, as Alon Levy points out. For that price, you might as well consider maglev.

  • What if I want 200 mph HSR, using existing tracks in major cities and new tracks between them?

  • EngineerScotty

    I recall reading that on a safety poster published by the rail authorities in the UK, on the dangers posed by trespassing on lines.

  • Note: U.S. has awarded $45 million in maglev funds to the Las Vegas-Anaheim project, as noted in update posted above. The shame…

  • merk

    It seems I’m always late to these discussions but nevertheless… =)

    #25:
    Then you get crappy average speeds for mind boggling amounts of money. Just look at the German system. They did that an upgrade here, a new line there with mixed traffic. Just like the post is proposing. Average speeds are half of what you get in France, Japan or Spain, on-time performance is abyssmal and costs are high (for the level of service achieved).

    The lesson is that for HSR (international definition, not 80mph+) you want either
    a) the Japanese system of a completely separate network or
    b) the French system of a strong separate network as core with services branching out on legacy tracks.

    Considering the state of US railways the French system is not an option so you need separate lines anyway.
    The question now is do the advantages of maglev—e.g. roughly 50% higher average speeds, lower maintenance costs—outweigh the disadvantages—mostly the higher capital investment needed, the need to secure the necessary IP rights to make the system less proprietary are part of those costs.
    The answer depends on the specific project.

    The NEC would most likely be a prime maglev candidate. *Lots* of people, more or less in a straight line, high density, good metro networks, congested existing line, high costs for land make maglev relatively less expensive. That said there isn’t the political will to overcome NIMBYs and funding issues, maglev or no.

  • Ocean Railroader

    There is something about Maglv that a regular train can beat it on. What happens in 30 years after we built the maglv lines and they start to need track repairs and say some of the railroads go into bankrupy and start cutting repairs? Maglv need speical parts to replace their tracks with while steel rail and cement along with wood ties are cheap and easy to get. steel rails are even easy for untrained volenteeirs to work with to repair railroad tracks while maglv needs speical parts all the way?

    Another thing to what about gauge in maglv lines what will happen when two maglv lines meet up with one another but are laid out with different gauges and some lines have to change their gauges to fit into the growing system?

    I don’t think we should get rid of the maglv lines already there but should wait and see what happens in other counties with maglv. Germany had it for over 20 years. Japan has nealy had it for 20 years. China built a eight mile one open to the public and they orginally wanted to extend it 20 more miles to a local airport and then another 140 miles to nearby city but stopped to do citztens protesting it and wanting it to put in to a giant subway tunnel under their homes.

    As for the Las Vegas system their are now plans to use regular high speed rail vs maglv and the high speed rail construction could get started in the next year. Pennsyvinia seems to have forgotton their hard working beast of burrden the Key Stone Corridor extension of the catenary and removal of the sharp curves could be done for 10% to 20% of the 53 mile maglv line’s cost.

  • Jakub Holic

    To Ocean Railroader:
    What you wrote, is a bit out of reality.
    1.) Replacing tracks of HSR after 30 years is nonsence. Even in case of low-speed rail routes (up to 200 km/h), it is needed to replace tracks much more often. It depends on curve radius and amount of trains on it, but switches (for example) need to be changed aprox. every 6 years. On TGV routes for 300 km/h, they have to do it even every 3 years.
    2.) There is no wood used at HSR construction
    3.) There are no HSR trains that could run on different gauges. And there is also no need for MAGLEV to be build with different gauges.
    4.) Waiting for other countries is exactely what all the countries do. That leads to only one outcome – all will be just waiting.
    5.) Germany doesn’t want to invest in comertial line, because they have working HSR system and rebuilding is not the case. Japan is going to build their own line, but it will not help you to decide, because it is completely different system (from the Transrapid) and the construction cost of it is even higher.
    6.) Dinial of Transrapid between Shanghai and Hangzhou in China is based on fear of magnetic field and those people simply don’t want to have anything near their houses – they would deny HSR as well. And EM fields influence is no higher than from their TV or hairdryer.
    7.) Rebuilding tracks to HSR is almost as simple as building a new one. You need to use different tracks, different distance between them, different comunication systems and so. You cannot run freight trains on HSR route then, which makes it wrong idea to just “rebuild it”.

  • Max Wyss

    To Jacub Holic:

    a) There are indeed High Speed trains which change gauge. Certain Talgo sets, as well as other EMUs can change the gauge, and therefore use the high speed lines, running at 250 km/h. Also, there are prototypes in Japan which have gauge-changing technology, also intended for high speed lines.

    b) The München – München Airport Transrapid Maglev was abandoned because of its high cost and inexistent profitability. The time saving advantages over the existing two commuter lines serving the airport did not outweigh the high investments.

    c) There are a few cases where freight trains use dedicated High Speed lines; I am aware of some examples in Germany between Hannover and Fulda, as well as in France. Both trains are loco-hauled and operate at 200 km/h. A special case are also the TGV Poste, the postal TGVs operating between Paris and Miramas (near Marseille), but they are essentially TVG Sud Est trains, where the power units are identical to the regular TGV Sud Est trains (and are occasionally helping out on a passenger train).

    d) It really depends on what is defined as “High Speed”; but you are right, upgrading an existing line to higher speed (in the 220 km/h range) involves complete replacement of the tracks (which might have happened anyway, as part of the line overhaul).

  • The neighborhood opposition to maglev in Shanghai wasn’t just radiation. The Chinese government was violating Transrapid’s safety specs. Transrapid called for separation of 100 meters between the line and existing homes; the Chinese government wanted to built the line 30 meters from homes.

  • I remember hearing rumors that Chinia was now thinking of building a great subway tunnel under the streets and homes to replace the El maglv idea. China has far more funds and resorces to build maga projects right now and it seems odd that China would at least start building other maglv lines in other sections of their county.

    I think any train that goes over 90 miles on hour should be rated as high speed rail consdering that once you go over 75 in a car you can’t go any faster in a car at 75 on the freeway. If someone was going none stop at 110 on the NEC though some very croweded and backed up areas it would be relitive to high speed over the current situation.

  • Max Wyss

    To Ocean Railroader:

    It seems that China totally lost interest in Maglev at the moment… well, the German money is no longer flowing, and getting the whole system expanded is more the intention than one single compatible to nothing line. As said, most of the money for the Shanghai airport connection came from Siemens and Germany.

    90 mph (145 km/h) is definitely not high speed. The “magic number” used to be 200 km/h in the past, which is possible on many places of the “old” network, after upgrading the tracks and the signalling systems. Nowadays, “high speed” begins at 220 km/h on conventional lines, and at 250 on dedicated high speed lines.

    … or you can also say that you are in the “high speed league” if you make it on the list of the fastest trains by the Railway Gazette…

  • It would be worth everyones while to go to the website of LaunchPoint. (California) They have a prototype tabletop model of their proposed maglev system. Even though I’m not an engineer, it made fascinating reading.

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