Trains That Could Be Better Than Planes

Trains That Could Be Better Than Planes

By Kathleen Day

Central Japan Railway Co.'s L0 (zero) series magnetic levitated train is running on Yamanashi Maglev Test Line during a test run in Tsuru, Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Tokyo, Japan, 19 September 2013.


Because once upon a time, planes pushed trains out of business. And now, we can imagine a world where trains return the favor. 

By Kathleen Day

Driving traffic-clogged roads to Baltimore is no fun. Ditto taking a crowded shuttle from Washington D.C. to New York. Which is why for the commuting masses (like yours truly), something tantalizing’s in the air: a privately funded company’s vision to build a $10 billion, high-speed, magnetically propelled train that would cut travel between the nation’s capital and Baltimore to 15 minutes, about the time it takes to casually walk a dozen city blocks.

Compare that with today’s hours-long commutes by car, train or plane between cities on the East Coast or, for that matter, anywhere in the country. That travel in the Northeast — among the nation’s densest population corridors — can be so irksome is telling: As bad as it is, it has the best, most extensive passenger train service in the country, albeit one woefully in need of new cars, new tracks, new everything.

The U.S. is light years behind competitors — certainly China, Europe and Japan — in updating its passenger-rail system.

One possible solution sounds a sight better: a train, propelled by magnetic levitation — maglev — that could flash-speed at 300-plus miles per hour between Boston and Washington. This would make them bedroom communities of one another: about an hour-and-a-half apart and about the time it takes to drive from downtown Manhattan to Stamford, Conn., with traffic. (Or to cross the George Washington Bridge if there’s a political kerfuffle going on.)

But two competing technologies – one a futurist’s dream, one a pragmatic compromise – are battling for support, financially and politically, to solve what no one except lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry disputes is a problem: the U.S. is light years behind competitors — certainly China, Europe and Japan — in updating its passenger-rail system.

2 trains facing each other on a track with people walking by. Passengers of a high speed train leading to their seats at the Barcelona Sants rail station. --

High speed rail passengers heading to their seats at the Barcelona Sants rail station

Source Corbis

“It’s been cool technology for 40 years, but the political and financial hurdles are just too high for a new, high-cost, largely unproven technology,” says Kevin Brubaker at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a nonprofit promoting green-friendly, business-friendly transportation. Translation: not maglev, but its more practical cousin – a high-speed, steel-wheel electric train, which at a top speed of 220 mph runs nearly 50 percent faster than Amtrak and costs much less to build than maglev. (Boston and D.C. would still be neighbors, but at 400-plus miles apart, more distant ones.)

In either case, the potential to do something serves as an enough-already reminder: whichever technology wins out, we’re still waiting.

Since 2003, China has constructed more than 6,000 miles of high-speed electric lines, which typically means trains running from 150 to 220 miles an hour. China’s building an additional 5,600 miles of lines, and planning 2,300 more. Europe has more than 11,000 miles in operation — under construction or planned.

And the U.S.? It has a mere 224 high-speed lines, all running between Washington and Boston. Nothing more is under construction. An 800-mile line planned in California, initially from Los Angeles to San Francisco, is moving forward, but not without being slowed by opponents.

Trying to catch up gets complicated.

Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, envisions an electric high-speed system akin to what the nation’s airline have: Federal or state governments would own and operate train tracks and stations, with private train lines transporting people. The private lines could operate solo or partner with Amtrak, which now shoulders more than 75 percent of the passenger travel in the Northeast, or some combination of that.

Northeast Maglev’s Jeff Hirschberg says the Baltimore-Washington rail line could be up and running in 10 years, if regulatory hurdles and environmental assessments go as planned — undeniably a long way off – but it would be a big step forward.

Either way — maglev or electric high-speed – this would not be Amtrak 2.0 .

Front of train at station waiting to take off

A passenger waits to board the maglev train at its station in Shanghai, China.

Source Corbis

Yet despite support for high-speed rails from everyone from Obama to business groups to Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a vocal, mostly Republican minority has dug in to stop plans to bring America’s passenger trains into the 21st century. (That the opposition is mostly Republican is curious, given the GOP’s official platform a decade ago that embraced the development of high-speed passenger rail.) Among them are governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida – all with close ties to the billionaire Koch brothers, owners of fossil fuel giant Koch Industries, the largest private company in the U.S.

Other troubles persist: High-speed rail advocates, electric and maglev alike, say even if they win public and political support, obtaining rights of way remains a major obstacle. That’s especially true in the crowded Northeast corridor, particularly north of New York City. Any Amtrak rider looking out the window can see why. From D.C. to NYC there’s lots of vacant land, relatively speaking, much of it run-down or dotted with abandoned buildings.

But pass Manhattan and Amtrak rides on increasingly narrow strips of land abutting spacious backyards likely belonging to homeowners who could afford to fight if not eager to sell.

High-speed advocates only half-joke when they say the one advantage of a totalitarian regime is its ability to take land easily for large projects that enhance public infrastructure. It’s the one reason China’s made so much progress in such a short time. Which means it’ll take bullet-speed for the U.S. to catch up — and surpass the world that’s speeding ahead of it.