Business & Development

Crazy Train

Is the proposed 300-mile-per-hour maglev train Baltimore’s future? Or fantasy?

Without a tape measure, it’s hard to tell exactly the distance separating Ed Anderson’s backyard and the chain-link fence cordoning off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. But Anderson says he’s sure it’s no more than 65 feet. All right, maybe 100 feet. The point is, it’s close. And needless to say, that’s not what Anderson wants, not for the backyard of his corner townhouse in South Laurel, which is one of several battlegrounds in one of the thorniest transportation conflicts since Governor Larry Hogan canceled the Red Line four years ago.

By 2030, it’s entirely possible that a massive train will be hurtling by Anderson’s house several times a day. Not just any train: a 311-mile-per-hour superconducting magnetic levitation train. For almost 10 years, Baltimore Washington Rapid Rail (BWRR)—a private group helmed by Wayne Rogers, former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party—has worked to import the latest high-speed rail technology from Japan. Commonly known as maglev, this proposed train utilizes powerful electromagnets instead of steel wheels. Rubber tires guide the train inside a concrete guideway, but once it reaches 90 mph, built-in magnets interact with others on the guideway, enabling the train to literally hover several inches high and reach speeds exceeding 300 mph in less than two minutes.

The model for BWRR is a 27-mile-long maglev line in Japan. Operated by the Central Japan Railway Company, it’s merely a testing track for the company’s ultimate goal—a 272-mile-long maglev line between Tokyo and Osaka hoped to be completed by 2037. The first leg of this line, connecting Tokyo to Nagoya, is slated to begin running in 2027.

As it so happens, 2027 is also the date when BWRR hopes to welcome passengers aboard the first leg of its own maglev line: Washington, D.C. to Baltimore in 15 minutes, with a stop at BWI Airport. If that comes to pass, Anderson might have a front-row seat to a superfast train buzzing by atop a 50-foot-high viaduct within a football toss of his house. It may be less noisy than a regular train, but that’s of little comfort.

“I definitely would never want that eyesore,” Anderson says on a bristling hot May afternoon. “You think I would’ve bought this property knowing that?”

Since 2016, as part of an environmental and engineering review, Rogers’ group, in tandem with the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, has whittled a potential 14 routes for their maglev train down to two. Each proposed route hews closely to Route 295—one to the east and one to the west. Close to three-quarters of either route would be out of sight in gargantuan, 45-foot-diameter tunnels, but that still leaves about 10 miles of maglev line that needs to travel along bridges. Meanwhile, three locations in Baltimore are being considered for the terminus: one in Inner Harbor, one in Westport, and another in Port Covington. Meanwhile, three locations in Baltimore are being considered for the terminus: one in Inner Harbor, one in Westport, and another in Port Covington. The years-long review process, however, has done little to assuage the concerns of opponents along the route, as well as those in Baltimore, who prefer public transit dollars be put to local projects. “In Baltimore we have not built any new infrastructure in 40 years,” says state Delegate Robbyn Lewis, who represents District 46 in the city. “What the hell are we talking about maglev for?”

“You think I would’ve bought this property knowing that?”

Yet maglev’s supporters think opponents fail to see the bigger vision, one that might link the northeast cities unlike ever before. As the first way station, Baltimore has an opportunity to eventually draw people, business, and investment from up and down the East Coast, one of the world’s busiest rail corridors.

“We’ve lost an entire generation of letting our infrastructure in America deteriorate,” says Rogers. “We have to turn that around.”

In Maryland, the concept of a maglev line has a crucial supporter in the Governor’s Mansion. After riding Japan’s maglev test line while on an international trade mission during his first term as governor, Hogan was hooked. This was 2015, and shortly afterward his administration agreed to sponsor BWRR through the environmental and engineering review process currently underway. Beyond that, state support in the General Assembly and among the general public remains nominal.

Before Hogan even left for Japan, Rogers had laid the groundwork for a maglev train in the northeastern U.S. He knew Torkel Patterson, a Central Japan Railway Company (JR Central) board member, from their time together at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1972. After a series of meetings in Tokyo, the company promised to waive its technology licensing fees if Rogers started a firm to bring maglev to the states. Convincing others of maglev’s potential is the task, especially given the full extent of what BWRR is trying to accomplish. “Who would think of driving two hours in their car from Baltimore to D.C. when I could jump on a train in 15 minutes?” says Rogers. “It’s going to change the way people think, where they work, and where they live. We’re convinced.” Rogers exaggerates the drive time a bit—70-90 minutes for a trek to Washington is more common—but he makes a point. Who can afford the cost of that round-trip ticket is another question.

“The real goal is shrinking geography between Washington and New York so that we bring 50 million people within one hour of transportation,” he says. Because of that ambition, all of the new infrastructure proposed for the Maryland stretch is on a scale that could accommodate the millions of annual riders Rogers believes will be drawn to a high-speed transportation option.

Yet maglev trains remain unproven in the commercial sense, despite JR Central developing the technology close to five decades ago. To date, there are only two such trains operating, and both are considered “demonstration trains.” In China, a maglev train that launched in 2002 shuttles people from Shanghai’s airport to the city’s business district in just eight minutes. The other is the current test track in Japan. The reason is simple enough: money. Estimates of the cost to lay down one mile of maglev rail can range up to $100 million, a cost that grows exponentially when tunneling is involved.

“I have objections to…do[ing] something exotic when cost-effective alternatives are at our fingertips.”

In Japan, the final build-out of the Toyko to Osaka line is expected to cost $80 billion, which offers a sense of how much a maglev train running from D.C. to New York City will cost. Passengers, Rogers suggests, will likely pay a price that’s competitive with Amtrak’s Acela line—somewhere between $50 and $100, depending on deals and time of day—but other officials have said it will cost more.

So far, according to the Maryland Public Policy Institute, BWRR has raised only $5 billion of the estimated $12-15 billion to build its D.C. to Baltimore line. “I don’t have technological or philosophical objections to maglev. I do have objections to the frame of mind that says we have to do something exotic when cost-effective alternatives are right at our fingertips,” says Del. Lewis. “It costs a lot of money but won’t move a lot of people.”

In Baltimore, where finding reliable bus service can be like playing a game of roulette, transportation exists in the realm of reality, not concept. People need buses and subways that run, and on time, Lewis says. Plus, the MARC commuter train already exists between D.C. and Baltimore. Why not expand service and build an additional rail so MARC trains don’t have to share space with freight rail and Amtrak’s passenger trains?

Rogers parries these sorts of questions. Studies done by BWRR say a maglev could accommodate one-tenth of the nearly 120 million trips taken between the two cities annually. He is also quick to highlight the estimated 74,000 construction jobs the project will create, the very thing that won over support for the project from local leaders of the state conference of the NAACP in June.

Meanwhile, some of the strongest opposition to the project continues to come from residents such as Anderson who live near the routes under consideration. The luster of a high-speed maglev train wears off when they consider the impact construction might have on their homes: boring machines chewing earth, trucks hauling off tons of dirt, tunnels beneath their streets, and ever-present viaducts supporting trips north and south every 10 minutes, as BWRR hopes to do. An independent analysis found the proposed routes affect 916 total parcels of land. “I hate the word NIMBY, because this wouldn’t be in our backyard,” says Gary Stone, who lives about 10 minutes away from Anderson. “This would be in our front yard.” Dennis Brady, former leader of Citizens Against This SCMaglev (SC for “super conducting”), remains skeptical that private financing will cover the cost. “We point out that there isn’t a major transportation system in the world that isn’t supported by their government.”

Meanwhile, maglev true believers are still trying to win over hearts and minds. In late May, it’s standing room only as about 65 people try to find space inside the small town hall of Riverdale Park, located in Prince George’s County. Most people are equal parts dismayed and flummoxed, even close to three years into the review process. Should they worry about their homes’ property values, assuming a visible viaduct is a hundred feet away? Will underground vibrations disrupt neighborhoods and streets? Is the train loud? And what is the real cost in the end anyhow?

David Henley, project director of the proposed maglev train, takes each question in turn: The cost is north of $12 billion, but BWRR is looking into low-interest, long-term loans for financing, so, no tax dollars. The vibrations are minimal, so minimal that you won’t even feel them. Noise? It’s rubber tires, not steel wheels, and then the train is on air. He stresses no homes are being taken to make room for a train. As for property values?

“I don’t think it’ll do anything [to the] land value at all,” he says later.

Still, Rogers admits questions remain unanswered. What about the ridership—will ticket prices cover the operating costs? On that, he equivocates a bit. “It’s like telling you what your monthly payment of your mortgage [would be], and you haven’t built the house yet,” he says.

And how about the money required to extend the line to New York City? “We don’t know yet,” he admits. “There’s too many variables in it.” Call this the wait-and-watch stage. And here’s a plot twist: It could be that the Federal Railroad Administration ultimately says its recommendation is to not build a maglev at all.

A draft Environmental Impact Statement identifying a preferred route is due later this year, followed by five public hearings, including one in Baltimore. The next year will determine whether the rubber meets the guideway, if you will, as the environmental statement is finalized, a route is picked, a full ridership and revenue report is released, and, optimistically speaking, construction begins in 2020. “I guarantee when people are landing at BWI and getting into Washington in eight minutes, the people in New York and Philadelphia are going to want the same thing,” says Rogers.

For now, all Maryland folks can do, irrespective of their position on maglev, is wait for the review process to finish unfolding. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.