Maglev Ready for Prime Time

Putting Maglev on Track” (Issues, Spring 1990) observed that growing airline traffic and associated delays were already significant and predicted that they would worsen. The article argued that a 300-mile-per-hour (mph) magnetic levitation (maglev) system integrated into airport and airline operations could be a part of the solution. Maglev was not ready for prime time in 1990, but it is now.

As frequent travelers know, air traffic delays have gotten worse, because the airport capacity problem has not been solved. As noted in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) 2001 Airport Capacity Enhancement Plan: “In recent years growth in air passenger traffic has outpaced growth in aviation system capacity. As a result, the effects of adverse weather or other disruptions to flight schedules are more substantial than in years past. From 1995 to 2000, operations increased by 11 percent, enplanements by 18 percent, and delays by 90 percent.” With the heightened security that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, ground delays have exacerbated the problem. The obvious way to reduce delays is to expand airport capacity, but expansion has encountered determined public opposition and daunting costs. The time is right to take a fresh look at maglev.

If fully exploited, Maglev will provide speed, frequency, and reliability unlike any extant transportation mode.

High-speed trains that travel faster than 150 mph have demonstrated their appeal in Europe and Asia. Although Amtrak has had some success with trains that go as fast as 125 mph on the Washington, D.C., to New York line, the United States has yet to build a true high-speed rail line. But interest is growing among transportation planners. Roughly half the states are currently developing plans for regional high-speed rail corridors. Pending congressional legislation would authorize $10 billion in bonds over 10 years to finance high-speed rail projects in partnerships with the states. However, due to the severe funding limitations, most of these projects are likely to pursue only incremental improvements in existing rail lines. Experience in Europe and Japan suggests that higher speeds are needed to lure passengers from planes and to attract new travelers.

Even though–or perhaps because–the Europeans and Japanese already have high-speed rail lines, they have been aggressively developing maglev systems. The Japanese built a new 12-mile maglev test track just west of Tokyo and achieved a maximum speed of 350 mph. They plan to extend the test track and make it part of a commercial line between Tokyo and Osaka. The German government approved the Transrapid System of maglev technology for development in the early 1990s and has been actively marketing the system for export. It recently announced funding of $2 billion to build a 50-mile route between Dusseldorf and Dortmund and a 20-mile connector linking Munich to its airport. Meanwhile, the Swiss have been developing a new approach for their Swiss Metro System, involving high-speed maglev vehicles moving in partially evacuated tunnels. China is building a maglev system to connect Shanghai with Pudong International Airport. This system should be in demonstration operation in 2003 and in revenue operation early in 2004.

The United States has also exhibited interest, but its progress has been slower. In 1990, the United States began a multiagency National Maglev Initiative that began with a feasibility analysis and was eventually to evolve into a development program. Although the initial analysis was promising, the effort was terminated in 1993 before any significant hardware development began. After a five-year hiatus, Congress passed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, which included a program to demonstrate a 40-mile maglev rail line, which could later be lengthened. Selection of a test site will be announced soon.

Maglev makes the most economic sense where there is already strong demand and where the cost of meeting this demand through expansion of existing infrastructure is expensive. Airports offer an appealing target. Current capital improvement projects at 20 major airports have a combined cost of $85 billion, enough to build 2,460 miles of maglev guideway at $35 million per double-track mile. This would be sufficient to connect maglev lines to airports in several parts of the country.

Maglev must also be compared with conventional high-speed rail. Maglev and high-speed rail costs are roughly equivalent for elevated guideways, the type of system most likely to be built. The added technology cost of maglev systems tends to be balanced by the fact that maglev vehicles weigh about one-half to one-third as much per seat as high-speed passenger trains, resulting in competitive construction costs. And because there is no physical contact between the train and the guideway in a maglev system, operation and maintenance costs are estimated to be between 20 and 50 percent less than what is required for high-speed rail systems. Maglev also has other advantages over rail systems: It takes up less space and has greater grade-climbing and turning capabilities, which permit greater flexibility in route selection; its superior speed and acceleration make it possible for fewer trains to serve the same number of people; and the greater speed will undoubtedly attract more passengers.

Lessons learned

After looking at the progress of the technology, the history of U.S. government involvement in transportation infrastructure, and the experience of other countries that have begun maglev development, we arrived at the following key conclusions:

Performance: Speed counts. Ridership on ground transportation systems increases markedly with speeds that enable trips to be completed in times that are competitive with airline travel. Amtrak’s incremental improvements don’t cut it.

Economics: Maglev is cost-competitive with high-speed rail, yet provides greater speed, more flexibility, and the capability to integrate with airline/airport operations. The physical connection to the airport is a necessary first step, but the benefits of maglev will not be realized until the next step is taken: integrating maglev with airline operations.

Government role: If maglev is to be a part of the solution to airport congestion, the advocate agency should be the FAA or the Federal Highway Administration, since maglev would primarily be accommodating air and highway travelers.

Public-private partnership: Private industry has long been a willing partner in development and deployment, but the federal government needs to demonstrate a long-term commitment if the private sector is expected to participate. In 1997, the Maglev Study Advisory Committee was congressionally mandated to evaluate near-term applications of maglev technology in the United States. The committee made the following recommendations for government action: a federal commitment to develop maglev networks for passenger and freight transportation, with the government as infrastructure provider and the private sector as operator; federal support for two or three demonstration projects; and federal or state funding for guideways and private financing for the vehicles, stations, and operating and maintenance costs.

Benefits of early deployment: The United States needs to have one or two operating systems to convince the nation that the technology is practical and to identify areas for improvement, such as new electronic components and magnetic materials, new aircraftlike lightweight vehicle body designs, new manufacturing and installation methods, and innovative civil construction techniques and materials.

Research: The nation needs long-term federal support for transportation system planning and R&D activities. In addition, since it is impractical to conduct R&D activities on a commercial line, it will be necessary to design a national test facility where innovations that affect system cost and performance can be fully evaluated under carefully controlled and safe conditions. This is no different from the research approach that other transportation modes have developed.

Fresh thinking: Maglev may best be thought of as an entirely new mode of transportation. It is neither a low-flying airplane nor a very fast locomotive-drawn train. It has many attributes that, if fully exploited, will provide speed, frequency, and reliability unlike any extant mode. It will add mobility even in adverse weather conditions and without the adverse effects of added noise and air pollution and increased dependence on foreign oil. If integrated with airline operations, it will augment rather than compete with the airlines for intercity travelers and will decrease the need for further highway expansion. It can be incorporated into local transit systems to improve intracity mobility and access to airports.

The future of high-speed ground transportation in the United States can be a bright one. If implemented appropriately, maglev presents the opportunity to break the frustrating cycle in which modest infrastructure improvements produce only a minimal ridership increase that results in disappointing financial performance and a call for additional incremental funding. Successful implementation of just one U.S. maglev project should open the door to an alternative to the cycle of frustration. Government should be an active partner in this process.

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Cite this Article

Rote, Donald M., and Larry R. Johnson. “Maglev Ready for Prime Time.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003