Prism - January 2002
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Fast Track for Trains

By Erin Drenning

If magnetically levitated trains fulfill their promise, Americans may soon be able to fly without ever leaving the ground.

With American sentiments toward flying at an all-time low in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks—a fear compounded by the American Airlines incident on November 12—the future of transportation may very well be in wingless flight.

For travelers who want to reach their destinations quickly while keeping their feet firmly planted on the ground, engineers believe trains may be the answer. Public officials are beginning to think that high-speed trains have a big role to play in solving the nation's transportation problems. And if some of the innovations in the works take off, railroad tracks could become the superhighway of the future.

Consider, for example, magnetically levitated trains, which hover almost six inches above the rails. In terms of speed, maglevs put mass transit carriers and even high speed locomotives to shame. Two years ago at a maglev test facility in rural Japan, a five-car train clocked the new world speed record at 552 kph (343 mph).

"In the long term, we're looking to maglevs for high-speed ground transportation that might replace aircrafts," says Arnold Kupferman, maglev program manager at the Federal Railroad Administration. "Forty percent of air travel covers a distance of less than 300 miles. We can relieve the air transportation system by allowing them to concentrate on long-range travel."

"(Maglev) is very doable now, and we need it." says Virginia Tech aerospace and ocean engineering chair Joseph Schetz. "It competes directly with short distance air travel."

The maglev is an extraordinary machine aside from that fact that it will get people where they want to go in no time flat. The train's magnetic frame uses either attraction or repulsion, depending on the design, to curve around and hover above the magnetic T-shaped rail. An alternating current runs through the guideway, resulting in an electromagnetic field that essentially pulls the train along at breakneck speeds.

A computer monitors and regulates the strength of the current at all times to keep the body of the train elevated, and the direction of the electromagnetic field is simply reversed to slow the vehicle at station stops.

Because there are no wheels, the ride is quiet and smooth. The train boasts zero emissions and low energy use due to the innovative electromagnetic design. The track is meant to be elevated from the ground to prevent collision and reduce highway traffic congestion and delays. Another perk to this new system is its outstanding hill-climbing ability—three times that of a regular train—which could make tunnels obsolete.

Americans are eager to capitalize on what they hope to be a tried-and-true form of transportation. "The maglev promises to create quite a bit of excitement and give people something they don't have right now," says Maryland Transit Administration project manager Suhair Alkhatib. According to Alkhatib, the travel time between Washington, D.C., and New York would be cut to under an hour aboard maglevs. "The potential is tremendous."

In 1999, the Federal Railroad Administration divvied out $15 million to seven cities to execute preconstruction planning for maglevs. The cities' layouts were collected and evaluated by the FRA in 2000, and two finalists were chosen to vie for federal funding last January. The two tracks still in the running are Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C./Baltimore. Pending Congressional appropriation, the winning proposal will receive $950 million to authorize construction of the nation's first high-speed maglev by 2010.

Pittsburgh's Maglev, Inc., with help from the Port Authority of Allegheny County, is heading up the Pennsylvania project, which would link Pittsburgh Airport to the city and its eastern suburbs along a 47-mile stretch. "Our mass transportation is not that good here in Pittsburgh," says Richard Hoff, industrial liaison to the Institute of Complex Engineered Systems at Carnegie Mellon University. "The maglev is critical to the the continued growth of this city. It could be a gimmick elsewhere, but for us, it is a necessity." If chosen for the final design, Pittsburgh's $2.8 billion tab would be picked up by local, state, and federal funds, as well as private grants. The Pennsylvania city expects in-service operation to begin as early as 2005.

The proposed corridor between Baltimore and the nation's capital would span 40 miles and stop at the highly trafficked Baltimore-Washington International Airport on the jaunt between Camden Yard and Union Station. Officials in the two cities agreed to implement the Transrapid TR08 vehicle, which was developed at the German test facility. The intercity system would be more costly and take longer to construct than that proposed in Pennsylvania. The $3.4 billion project, funded by public and private grants and loans, could be completed just in time for the 2012 Olympics, which Washington hopes to host if the district is favored by the U.S. Olympic Committee over New York, Houston, and San Francisco this fall and can beat out international hot spots in 2005.

But will convenience outweigh cost in times of economic uncertainty? A one-way fare from BWI to D.C. is estimated at almost $20, and that's in 1999 dollars. Riders who opt for the half hour trip on the MARC commuter system will keep three-fourths of that cash in their pockets. And while a National Association of Realtors study in November indicated that 62 percent of commuters would take the train if it were safe and convenient, only 15 percent thought that building or even extending a railway would be a viable solution.

The question remains whether a multi-billion dollar transportation project is on track with public interest or if the maglev will lose steam when the initial novelty wears off. The companies who are backing these futuristic flying machines can only hope that if they build it, America will ride.


Erin Drenning is an associate editor of Prism.
She can be reached at




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