September 1, 2008
Fast Train Coming (Slowly)
While the rest of the world builds high-speed railroads, we contemplate floating trains.
A couple of years ago, after a big antiwar demonstration in New York, my brother pointed out that one of the supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, the fringe political figure, had the best sign: “Mag Lev Not War.” Great line, I thought. And then, early this summer, came word that Congress had allocated $45 million in seed money to the California-Nevada Interstate Maglev Project. News reports said that this futuristic train would hurtle through the desert at a top speed of 310 miles an hour, connecting Las Vegas and Disneyland. Again, like the LaRouche protest poster, it seemed like a pretty good joke. What’s next? Maglev service linking Branson, Missouri, with Dollywood and the Grand Ole Opry?
Magnetic levitation, which involves running high-speed trains on a cushion of electromagnetic attraction or repulsion (depending on the system), is one of those futuristic ideas that have never quite arrived. I associate maglev less with LaRouche (who has the technology entangled with his vision of a Eurasian land bridge linking all the world’s continents via, in part, the Bering Strait) and more with New York’s late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in 1988 organized the Maglev Technology Advisory Committee. It was the first of many congressional committees, none of which ever allocated more than token funding to about a half-dozen approved maglev projects.
While we have been dreaming about floating trains, Europe has been methodically threading its cities together with a sophisticated high-speed rail network. The French TGV, a conventional train with earthbound steel wheels, broke the land-speed record last year, hitting 357 miles an hour on a test track. Asia, too, has invested in high-speed rail: the famous Japanese bullet trains have been in operation since the 1960s, and Beijing’s new high-speed line, which debuted for the Olympics, can go as fast as 220 miles an hour. Even Argentina is about to build a 440-mile-long high-speed rail line. What do we have? Well, we’ve got the Northeast Corridor, where Amtrak’s Acela Express can, on a good day—and only on two short stretches in Rhode Island and Massachusetts—reach 150 miles an hour. And, apparently, we’re gearing up to spend an estimated $12 billion linking our two most significant tourist destinations.
To be fair, the headlines didn’t quite get it right. “It’s about a mile and a half from Disneyland—it doesn’t go into Disneyland,” insists M. Neil Cummings, a Los Angeles–based attorney who heads up the joint venture, known as the American Magline Group (AMG), that has been trying to build the thing for 16 years. The line would run along the traffic-clogged I-15 corridor and link Anaheim’s planned intermodal train station with the ever-expanding Ontario International Airport, the desert communities of Barstow and Victorville, Ivanpah—an airport 25 miles outside Las Vegas that’s scheduled to handle the overflow from McCarran—and then the city of Las Vegas. The route makes all the sense in the world. Indeed, most of it was formerly traveled by a slowpoke Amtrak line, called the Desert Wind, that was taken out of service in 1997. (There is also a competing proposal for a privately funded, steel-wheel, high-speed rail service along the I-15 right-of-way called the DesertXpress.)
Meanwhile, the always innovative State of California has begun its own initiative to build an 800-mile, $40 billion, high-speed rail network. It would feature sleek, aerodynamic, state-of-the-art trains—like they have in Europe—connecting San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and more than a dozen other cities. A bond issue for the first $9.95 billion installment will be on the November ballot.
Clearly, given that gas prices have driven mass-transit ridership to record levels, that the carbon footprint has entered the American mainstream, that air travel is tied up in knots, and that “change”—all shimmery and miragelike—is coming soon to Washington, this could finally be high-speed rail’s moment in the United States. But maglev? “It floats, it’s frictionless, and it’s emissions free,” Cummings says, making it sound like a flying carpet. “And it’s quieter. It wraps around the guideway, so it can’t derail. The operation-and-maintenance cost is lower.” He acknowledges that the up-front construction costs are probably higher—a maglev line requires an expensive elevated track—but argues that conventional railroads require heavy infrastructure in hilly or mountainous areas and in cities, so the cost differential evens out.
The consortium headed by Cummings is impressive. It consists of Transrapid International-USA, a division of the firm that built a maglev test track in Emsland, Germany, and also worked on one in Shanghai; Hirschfeld Steel Company, one of America’s largest steel fabricators; Parsons, which has long been a maglev consultant to the Federal Railroad Administration; and General Atomics, a defense contractor that is known for its work on the Pentagon’s Predator program and, as its name suggests, is heavily involved in the nuclear-power industry. Cummings says, “The operations of maglev, by the way, requires no foreign oil. It’s all electricity that is generated in this country by water, by coal, by wind, and by sun.” He doesn’t mention nuclear power, which, given that General Atomics is part of his team, is a curious omission.
I run the maglev question by Andy Kunz, a high-speed-rail advocate and urban designer who runs the Web site NewTrains.org. Early in our conversation, he’s upbeat: “I’m all for any train that can move a lot of people in a hurry.” Gradually, as we talk, Kunz turns suspicious. “We’ve had high-speed trains since 1964. Why aren’t there a bunch of maglevs? That’s the question someone needs to answer.”
There are the maglev test tracks in Germany and Japan. Shanghai now has a maglev line in passenger service, linking the airport to the city. But that’s it, so far. Citing the example of a consortium of automotive industries in the 1930s that bought up and shut down urban streetcar lines, Kunz voices his fear that the whole maglev craze is a decoy, something that will actually prevent high-speed rail from ever being built in this country. Later, I talk to Quentin L. Kopp, a retired superior-court judge and former state senator who runs the California High-Speed Rail Authority board. He opens the conversation by calling the maglev line “irrelevant.” Judge Kopp resists Kunz’s theory that the maglev project is some sort of scam but calls it everything but. “It’s promotion, it’s all blue sky, it’s speculation,” he roars, and then asserts that the Germans have been trying for more than 20 years to unload their technological white elephant on us. “The proof is in the pudding,” he continues. “The Berlin-to-Hamburg line never happened. Let them build it in Germany or Japan. Let them spend their money on it.”
In theory, at least, the rail lines built by the California High-Speed Rail Authority and the AMG’s maglev service could actually complement each other. They might share stations in Anaheim and Ontario. But they will inevitably be competitors when it comes to federal funding. California plans to look to Washington for a quarter to a third of the money it needs. Cummings says his maglev team only wants the same deal the Lincoln Administration provided to the transcontinental railroad back in the 1860s: “The railroad barons, they borrowed the money from the federal government to build it, and they paid it back eventually.”
My real problem with maglev, though, is that it’s a technology that made more sense 20 years ago, when it promised unheard-of land speeds. Now that gravity-bound trains can hit 357 miles an hour, it’s a little passé. And what’s been proposed is merely a series of discrete projects to demonstrate the viability of maglev technology: one from Anaheim to Las Vegas, another from the Pittsburgh airport to downtown, and maybe a route from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. By contrast, the State of California is promising to build an integrated system using technology that is already proven and in widespread use in the rest of the world. It’s a system that could inspire other states to do the same, and act as a catalyst for a new national railroad.
I wish I could envision an America with our major cities connected by maglev lines, but all I can picture is Disneyland’s Monorail. You can ride it from Downtown Disney to Tomorrowland and back. But, when you’re tired of Tomorrowland and want to go home, you go out to the parking lot and get in your car. Like the Monorail, maglev seems to be a symbol of someone else’s future, and a distraction from the business of building the real future we so desperately need.