Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Is Maglev the path forward for high-speed rail in the Northeast?

The proposed Northeast Maglev line.
High-speed rail in the Northeast US seems to be gaining momentum, as Northeast Maglev has opened an office in Baltimore, Maryland in the hopes of building a Maglev line from DC to Baltimore - and later on to New York City. Maglev, which has been tested to high acclaim for years in Japan, is a magnetic technology that would allow trains to run far faster than any train currently operating in the US, as well as every high-speed rail (HSR) line currently under construction here.

I recently posted a comparison between California's and Texas' HSR projects, using a series of key characteristics related to costs and implementation challenges. For continuity's sake, I've done the same below with the proposed DC-Baltimore line. Though it is still in the very early stages of development, we can nevertheless begin exploring the project's merits and potential obstacles.

Speed
Northeast Maglev says the train would run up to 311 mph, making for a 15-minute ride between DC and Baltimore.

Length
Around 40 miles, though the exact length depends on the alignment.

Total Projected Cost
$10 billion for the DC-Baltimore leg

Cost per mile
$250 million - significantly more than California's and Texas' $85 million and $50 million respective per-mile price tags.

Public Funding
The State of Maryland is currently applying for a $28 million federal grant to study the feasibility of the DC-Baltimore line. In terms of the actual construction cost, the Japanese government and Central Japan Railway have agreed to pay for half of it (in the hopes that the line's success will bring them more US business), and supporters expect the federal government to pay for the rest of it, with Maryland off the hook for any of the money. I'm not sure how realistic this is based on the current Congress' hostility towards HSR. California has had to find room in the state budget for its own HSR project, including dedicating cap-and-trade revenues.

Private Funding
While Northeast Maglev's plans don't include private funding for the initial DC-Baltimore line, they may have to find some if the federal government doesn't chip in as much as it's expected to. Either way, they're assuming it won't be too hard to find investors for the later Baltimore-New York extension, as the complete DC-NY line would connect several centers of commerce and a lot of people stand to benefit from a faster ride between major cities.

Public Opinion
Some in Baltimore have opposed earlier incarnations of a high-speed rail line due to concerns that people would be displaced from their homes to make room for the tracks. But this new plan includes burying two-thirds of the Maglev line underground, thus eliminating much of the need to acquire private land. I've yet to see any polling on the new plan, but I imagine commuters will support it.

Political Support
Several elected officials in Maryland support the plan, including Governor Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Hogan is particularly excited about the project, having had an eye-opening experience in Japan similar to California Governor Jerry Brown's back in the 60's when Japan's HSR first opened. Hogan just took office recently, so he may still be in office for several years to continue supporting the project whenever possible. Notably, Hogan is a Republican, which may give him some credibility with the Republican Congress as Maryland seeks federal funding.

Land acquisition
As stated above, the underground design of the DC-Baltimore leg means it is far less likely the project will become bogged down in the courts over cases of eminent domain. But while eminent domain can delay the project and drive up costs, so too can the extensive drilling required to bury most of the rail line.

Environmental clearance
Northeast Maglev has yet to start the environmental clearance process. The company is still working on getting the state and federal approval necessary to operate a rail line in Maryland, after which it can begin drafting an environmental impact statement. Said statement would cement the route and costs, giving us a better idea of how much land acquisition and public funding will be necessary.

Other concerns
Importantly, because Maglev uses a different infrastructure from traditional trains, the DC-Baltimore line wouldn't connect directly to other trains, such as Amtrak, for those who want to continue North to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston. In fact, the Baltimore terminal wouldn't even be at Penn Station or Camden Station, so while that may not affect daily commuters, it looks like long-distance travelers (like your blogger) would have to get off at BWI Airport if they need to switch to Amtrak.

Ticket prices will also be a concern, especially for those who would need to buy tickets for both Maglev and Amtrak. Northeast Maglev says tickets for DC-New York will be competitive with air travel or first-class Acela tickets, which are quite expensive. I haven't seen anything on how much a DC-Baltimore ticket would be.

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