Washington hosted the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) annual meeting just prior to President Obama’s inauguration. One month earlier, over 200 participants from 16 countries attended the 20th biannual International Maglev Systems Conference in San Diego. Only this year, there were no TRB maglev presentations, nor were there any Federal Railroad Administration or Federal Transit Administration representatives. So why was the most advanced transport technology conspicuously ignored? Answer: the Bush administration was anti-maglev and discouraged official review or acceptance of the technology.
Things have changed. President Obama provided some much needed leadership and pushed America forward when he personally insisted that maglev construction funding be included in the stimulus bill. He truly understands the urgent need for high-speed electric-powered intercity transportation systems that are energy and land-use efficient.
Maglevs use magnetic levitation for propulsion and suspension along dedicated guide ways and represent a transportation revolution because several inherently undesirable characteristics of wheeled transport are eliminated or dramatically reduced, namely vibration, noise and wear and tear on parts from friction. Higher speeds are achievable without the penalty of increased maintenance costs. This translates into higher system reliability and increased sustainability due to the resulting longer service life and lower life-cycle costs.
Paying for maglev systems will require America’s transportation priorities to be less automobile and airline dominant. During the past eight years the federal government invested over $50 billion in new runway and taxiway projects, airport facilities and air-traffic-control technology. While new runways allow more take-offs and landings, they do nothing to reduce America’s dependence on oil or reduce highway congestion, much less aid travel in inclement weather or improve traveler comfort.
What if $50 billion was spent on comfortable, high-speed maglev systems? America’s airlines are not adequate substitutes for mass transportation, especially for distances of 600 miles or less. Imagine a 70-minute maglev trip from New York City to Washington, D.C., including stops. Why fly?
Maglev can provide an alternative to long car trips by providing a highly reliable and superfast transport system that connects all major cities along a route. Such routes would create demand for commuter feeder lines and spur new real estate development.
During TRB’s conference, several professionals said maglev was “too expensive,” but then admitted to having no access to technology specifics or actual costs. Yet, without this data, it is impossible to assess maglev’s value or viability.
There were even senior Federal Transit Administration officials who were unaware of the low speed, 5.6-mile urban maglev system running in Nagoya, Japan, performing with 99.97% on-time reliability over the past four years.
The dual-track Shanghai maglev project was cost effective at about $60 million per mile, especially considering the challenging alluvial soil conditions. Since then, new guide way and construction techniques have lowered costs by as much as 30%. And data from the canceled Munich project show it was additional tunneling costs, not technology costs, that killed it.
Maglevs are cost effective because capital costs are recovered through annual maintenance costs that are about 30%less than traditional high-speed rail. This means faster loan repayment, increased financial sustainability and excellent potential for profitable operation without tax subsidies.
What gets lost with the focus on project cost is that maglev’s on-time trip reliability is close to 100%, regardless of weather conditions. Travelers choosing maglev would reduce the need to build more runways and highways, reduce pollution and enhance commerce.
Maglev systems fit seamlessly into the vision of developing first rate, financially sustainable and livable pedestrian communities that enhance, rather than compromise, citizen mobility or health. It’s about time we got with the program.