The Faster Track: Shoule We Build a High-Speed Rail System?

1966, James Powell and Gordon Danby, two scientists at
Brookhaven National
Laboratory, demonstrated the potential of using magnetic forces
to lift, propel,
and guide a wheelless vehicle with the capacity for much greater
speeds than
conventional trains. Federal funding for maglev, or magnetic
levitation trains,
followed for several years. But in 1975 all government support
ceased because of
a decision that America's highways, airways, and much reduced
conventional trains
were adequate to meet the nation's transportation needs. However,
Japanese and
German scientists and their governments not only invested in
faster conventional
trains. They also saw the tremendous potential of maglev trains
to cut travel
time and save energy. To date, both governments have provided
about a billion
dollars to develop commercial prototypes that float along
guideways at speeds
approaching 300 miles per hour.

In many respects, the story of how Japan and Germany are racing
to capitalize on
yet another American invention has a depressingly familiar ring
to it. But the
picture may be changing now as political and economic shifts and
the nation's
worsening transportation crisis have helped boost U.S. interest
in maglev and
other forms of high-speed rail. Steel-wheel rail systems, at
speeds of 125-200
miles per hour, are now commonplace in Europe and Japan. Maglev,
often touted as
the next generation of high-speed rail, is on the brink of
commercialization in
Germany and Japan.

Last year, Congress passed a major transportation bill that
provides some $725
million for the development of a U.S. maglev prototype, and other
support is under consideration and gaining new proponents.
Meanwhile several
states, notably Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, and California,
have been active
in promoting maglev and other high-speed rail projects to
alleviate mounting
congestion in their highways and airports. Support for maglev is
also coming from
other quarters, including environmentalists, who tout the
technology's potential
to save energy and curb air pollution.

Enthusiasm for maglev is also being spurred by two sea changes in
the American
political economy. First the demise of the Cold War and the
retrenchment among
defense contractors have made conversion a priority; maglev is
one of several
technologies eyed by defense companies like the Grumman
Corporation seeking to
diversify, and by the scientists and engineers who have long been
the Pentagon's
research and development army. Maglev typifies the sort of
exotic technology
with commerical potential that appeals to members of Congress
seeking a civilian
equivalent of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Second, in the
aftermath of Reaganomics, public infrastructure investment holds
new appeal as
a strategy of growth.

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How Maglev Works

There are two basic types of maglev systems, which rely on
opposite scientific
principles. In electromagnetic systems, utilized by the German
Transrapid on its
twenty-mile prototype run, the levitating force is due to an
attractive pull
between conventional electromagnets on the vehicle and an iron
rail located in
the guideway. With this system the vehicle floats about
three-eighths of an inch
above the guideway.

The alternative approach, an electrodynamic "repulsive" system,
is being
developed by a Japanese rail institute. This approach uses coils
superconducting wire to push the train upward into a floating
posture, and
locates magnets on the upper side of the guideway. With the
magnets the vehicles have the potential to be much lighter; in
addition, the
repulsive principle permits a much larger gap between the vehicle
and the
guideway, four to six inches instead of three-eighths of an inch.
In both
systems, the guideway's electromagnets both lift the maglev
vehicle and propel
it. Propulsion comes from the coils' alternating polarity, which
pulls the
vehicle from in front and pushes it from behind.

The superconducting approach has captured somewhat more interest
recently and may
be the best alternative for a U.S. system in the long run because
it offers the
potential for lower vehicle and guideway costs, more technical
dynamism, and
could lead to a more competitive version of maglev. However, the
German system
is closer to commercialization than the Japanese program and is
the one that most
domestic backers of maglev hope to develop in the U.S.

Fast Tracks Overseas

Japanese bullet trains, built by Hitachi, are now celebrating
their twenty-eighth
year. By the late 1980s bullet trains nationwide were serving 135
million people
per year. Today about 260 bullet trains operate, at speeds of 170
mph. By
contrast, Amtrak's fast trains reach brief peaks of about 125

Several of the Japanese bullet trains make money. The Tokyo-Osaka
line, which
cost $640 million to construct, was in the black after a year and
a half. The
Japanese government provided an initial subsidy during
construction of the
320-mile line, but the bulk of the funding came from the World
Bank and was
repaid in the 1970s. Japan has also been in the forefront of
maglev R&D. A new
prototype, the MLU-001, combines retractable pneumatic tires at
lower speeds with
magnetic levitation at speeds that reach 323 mph, a world speed

Germany, meanwhile, has introduced electrically powered "ICE
trains" (for
Intercity Express) at speeds of up to 180 mph. The first line
went into service
between Hamburg and Munich in the summer of 1991. The government
has recently
ordered 60 ICE trains at a cost of about $1 billion, which is
just part of a
larger $5 billion government backed program to improve its
railroad system.

Eventually, the German government hopes to eliminate all domestic
flights and
transfer passengers to more efficient trains. German maglev,
under the management
of Transrapid International, has been tested at speeds of 290 mph
and seats 80
to 100 passengers per section. As of mid-1991, more than 62,000
miles of testing
had been conducted on a 19.5 mile track in Emsland. Transrapid,
which has
received more than $1 billion in government support, includes
such private
companies as Siemens and Daimler-Benz. A regular maglev line is
consideration for the HamburgBerlin run.

Several political and economic obstacles must be overcome if the
U.S. is to
develop or build a new high-speed rail system, maglev or steel
wheel. The
biggest hurdle will be finding the billions of dollars in public
and private
financing that maglev will require while it is being developed
commercialized. It is inconceivable that private industry will
both finance the
technology and actual construction of maglev lines. Estimates
vary widely but
guideway and infrastructure construction have been estimated at
anywhere from $10
million per mile to as high as $63 million per mile. This is more
costly than
highway or conventional rail, but roughly on a par with other
high-speed rail

An operational maglev system would likely require capital grants,
or other forms
of public subsidy, presumably by localities or states, as well as
the federal
government. Proponents, such as Joseph Vranich, the author of
and executive director of the High Speed Rail/Maglev Association,
urge that
federal tax law should give maglev and high-speed rail generally
the same access
to tax-exempt bonds as highway and airport projects.

Eventually, a high-speed rail system could be self-supporting or
very close to
it. Amtrak, the closest U.S. analogy, now covers 79 percent of
its operating
costs from passenger revenues, up from 48 percent a decade ago,
due to increased
ridership and productivity gains. Amtrak now has 42 percent of
all air and rail
passengers on the Boston-Washington corridor. Foreign passenger
rail systems do
generally run at an operating loss, but several high speed
systems have recently
gone into the black.

Beyond its high cost, development of a national maglev system
will require more
federal planning and coordination than now exists. At present,
the Army Corps of
Engineers is responsible for developing an overall plan for
implementing maglev;
the Department of Energy is in charge of superconducting
technologies and
maglev's energy conservation potential; and the Department of
Transportation has
several roles. Safety concerns are the Federal Railroad
Administration's problem;
use of highway rights of way belong under the Federal Highway
Administration; and
airport connections fall to the Federal Aviation

Is High-Speed Rail Worth It?

Skeptics make three basic counter-arguments. First, America may
have gone too far
in dismantling its rail system to ever rebuild it in a
cost-effective way.
Population patterns that once hugged rail corridors have long
since dispersed.
Even in Europe and Japan, which are denser to begin with and
which never
abandoned their rail systems, high-speed rail is barely
cost-effective. And
high-speed rail overseas is well integrated with feeder lines
that have been
largely abandoned in the U.S.

Second, rail passenger transport is extremely capital intensive,
as well as
relatively inflexible. A bus or plane can go anywhere, given
roads and airports.
Planes, and buses can also be easily rerouted, as demand shifts.
Trains, in
contrast, go only where tracks go, and cannot quickly be shifted
from region to

And third, even if there is a place for high-speed rail, on
center-city to
airport runs, or in densely populated corridors like
Boston-Washington or
Cleveland-Pittsburgh, it may still be preferable to rely on more
steel-wheel-on-rail systems, like the proven French or the
Japanese high-speed
trains, rather than the more exotic and largely untested magnetic
levitation. One
lower-risk alternative would be to let the Germans and Japanese
continue to bear
the cost of developing and testing maglev. If maglev does pan
out, the U.S. could
not only install maglev lines, but we could require maglev's
Japanese or German
developers to enter into partnerships with domestic firms so that
America could
get technology-transfer and employment benefits just as our
trading partners have
often done with American inventions.

Who has the better case? Certainly the United States has let its
rail system
deteriorate, but the stabilization of Amtrak at 25,000 miles of
track and 22
million annual passengers, suggests that there is indeed a
consumer market for
train travel on dense corridors. Amtrak trains are, of course,
far slower and
less comfortable than the best high-speed trains of Japan or
Europe. A skeletal
high-speed rail system at an acceptable capital cost could
probably attract
enough passengers to prove its worth, and possibly justify
further expansion. The
flexibility argument makes a strong case for buses or planes on
travelled routes, but is not relevant to a corridor with a high
demand for
regular service.

One of the most comprehensive and even-handed studies was issued
in 1991 by a
nineteen-member committee of the National Research Council, an
affiliate of the
National Academy of Sciences. The report, "In Pursuit of Speed:
New Options for
Intercity Passenger Travel," concludes that Europe and Japan are
generally better
positioned to exploit the advantages of high speed rail, because
they have a long
tradition of public subsidy and rider acceptance, as well as more
feeder systems and transfer terminals, but accepts the potential
of high-speed
rail on dense U.S. routes.

The report estmates that the most likely break-even point for a
U.S. high-speed
rail system would be about six million annual riders. To put that
number in
perspective, it equals the current number of annual flyers on
just one
well-travelled air route. The report finds the current level of
steel wheel rail
technology more cost-effective than maglev, and calls for further
study of maglev
before any decision to subsidize construction of passenger
routes. For the near
term, the council opts for importing available high-speed rail
technology or
joint ventures with foreign supplers of steel wheel rail systems,
rather than
heroic efforts to develop home-grown technology.

As the council points out, however, performing a cost-benefit
calculation of the
worth of high-speed rail by comparing its capital or operating
costs with those
of alternative modes misses the most important benefit the
potential of
high-speed rail to relieve congestion and reduce fuel
consumption, pollution, and
oil imports. These remain the strongest arguments on behalf of

Maglev as Decongestant

The nation's increasingly inefficient and congested highway and
airline systems
are costing Americans billions of dollars yearly in delays. Total
delays from
both autos and planes now cost the country an estimated $15-20
billion per year
and some transportation experts estimate that this figure could
rise to $60
billion annually early in the next century. The FAA currently
considers eighteen
major airports badly congested, and projects that number could
reach thirty-two
by the year 1996. About 50 percent of all domestic air travel
today is for trips
of less than 500, miles which are especially expensive and
inefficient in terms
of fuel usage. It is these trips, especially on dense corridors,
that are prime
candidates for replacement by high-speed rail travel.

In this century, government expenditures for the nation's
highways have totaled
about $1 trillion (in 1982 dollars) according to the
Congressional Budget Office.
But many of those roads and bridges are in such sorry condition
that to repair
them adequately could cost as much as $3.2 trillion, according to
figures. And the Federal Highway Administration has calculated
that vehicle
delays due to congestion on freeways alone will rise four-fold
from 1985 to 2005
in urban areas.

High-speed rail maglev or steel wheel potentially could help
alleviate airport
winglock and highway gridlock. Maglev is particularly well-suited
for trips in
the 100 to 500 mile range and could thereby reduce inefficient
short hauls and
free airports for longer trips.

A study done for Congress in 1989 by the Maglev Technology
Advisory Committee,
a group composed of early maglev researchers, defense firms, and
companies interested in technology, notes that per passenger mile
maglev uses
about one-half the thermal energy of autos and about one-fourth
as much as
airplanes. Because it is frictionless, it will require less
maintenance. Unlike
airlines, it is not constrained by weather conditions. Maglev
also conserves land
use and minimizes land acquisition costs, to an even greater
degree than
conventional rail. And maglev guideways are well suited to the
existing rights
of way along the interstate highway system. The advisory report
indicates that
a two-way maglev system requires only about fifty feet of width.

If maglev comes to America, it will almost surely come not via a
massive federal
outlay, but through incremental local initiatives that initially
consume modest
federal subsidies, prove their worth, and eventually are
bootstrapped into a
larger regional or national system. Over the last few years
Pittsburgh has
emerged as the nation's most ambitious effort to promote maglev,
through a
private/public partnership called Maglev Inc. The list of
partners reads like
a greater Pittsburgh boosters' association: the United
Steelworkers of America,
Carnegie Mellon Research Institute, the city of Pittsburgh,
Allegheny County,
Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, local building trades, Duquesne Light,
the law firm
of Reed Smith Shaw and McClay, and the Tri-State Conference on

Maglev Inc. hopes to make Pittsburgh the center of the technology
in the U.S. and
to create tens of thousands of new jobs in construction, steel
and other
industries by building a regional network linking Cleveland,
Erie, Wheeling, and
other nearby cities with Pittsburgh. Maglev, Inc. estimates that
it would require
some eight to ten million riders yearly for a regional system to
break even.
Despite the present edge that Germany and Japan enjoy, the
technology's American
supporters hope to build on joint ventures, in this case with
German partners,
and eventually develop a more sophisticated second generation of

Pittsburgh will test the concept with an initial nineteen-mile
system, to be open by 1998, that will connect downtown with a new
airport. Thus
far, Maglev, Inc. has raised about $2 million, of which some $1.1
million has
come from federal, state, and local government. The nineteen-mile
will cost about $450-600 million. The ride will take ten minutes.
Pennsylvania legislature is considering Governor Bob Casey's
request for an
initial $2 million as a state contribution to the demonstration
line. Maglev,
Inc. is considered a prime contender for federal funds that will
be available
next year after the Federal Railroad Administration completes a
study identifying
the five 100 to 600 mile corridors nationwide with the best
potential for
high-speed ground systems.

Maglev as Conversion

In principle, maglev technology is an ideal candidate for
military conversion.
Like defense purchases, it offers the prospect of technical
dynamism, at the
frontiers of advanced manufacturing. As a new high-tech export
industry, it could
provide well paid jobs and export earnings. It could also
re-employ military
producers, their engineers, and factory workers as defense
production winds down.
By government estimates as many as 2.5 million military and
civilian workers
could lose their jobs in the defense industry as the Pentagon's
budget is

Three defense contractors have expressed interest in the
Pittsburgh project but
only if the work involves government contracts. One major
contractor with
dwindling defense business is the Long Island-based Grumman
Corporation. New York
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Representative Tom Downey,
the local
congressmen, helped push the high-speed rail legislation through
Congress, with
Grumman specifically in mind.

Still, there are real risks with economic conversion programs
like this one.
Grumman's last major foray into mass transit was something of a
fiasco. In 1978,
the contractor bought a bus company, Flxible Co., from Rohr, at a
time when
Grumman was trying to protect itself against falling orders for
the F-14 fighter.
But Grumman simply used the Rohr design for the bus without any
of its own
technology or equipment. The results were disastrous. The bus was
sold to New
York City and early on one collapsed, when the A-frame holding up
the body over
the rear axle broke. Other transit systems using the buses pulled
them off the
market or cancelled orders. Grumman checks then revealed four
major components
in the bus's chassis were at risk of structural collapse.
Finally, Grumman agreed
to retrofit all 2,900 buses; in 1983 it got out of the bus

To be sure, Grumman has also had some conversion successes. After
World War II,
the company had an excess supply of aluminum and found two uses
for the metal
that ultimately resulted in creating successful commercial
subsidiaries that are
still part of the company. Grumman started making canoes and
large high-sided
commercial trucks with its Grumman Olson unit; and the truck
enterprise has
become the nation's largest producer of walk-in truck bodies.

Grumman's mixed experience illustrates some of the pitfalls of
using technologies
such as maglev as a conversion strategy. Students of defense
contracting have
long observed business culture problems in converting from
military to commercial
production. Characteristically, defense firms maxmize their
profits, in a
cost-plus contracting environment, by maximizing the project's

Do the Locomotion

While maglev projects are gaining momentum, high-speed steel
wheel programs are
moving along at a faster clip in several states because the
technology has
already been fully developed and commercialized overseas. Texas
today is one of
the strongholds of high speed rail activity. In early 1992, the
Texas High Speed
Rail Corp., which includes the construction giant Morrison
Knudsen, won approval
to build an intercity line connecting Dallas, Fort Worth,
Houston, San Antonio,
and Austin. The company was awarded a fifty-year franchise by the
state and
construction is expected to begin in 1995 and open for revenue
service in 1998.
Using the technology of the French Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV),
the project is
expected to cost $5.7 billion and when it is completed will
provide some
thirty-four round trips daily between the Dallas-Fort Worth
Airport and Houston,
at speeds of about 200 mph.

Amtrak plans to test a Swedish train, the X2000, on its
Boston-New York and New
York-Washington lines. The X2000, which employs a tilting
mechanism that allows
trains to take curves at high speeds, is expected to be used at
speeds of up to
150 miles per hour by Amtrak; this could cut the Boston-New York
trip from four
to three hours. High speed, however, will require a better
roadbed and track and
more federal support.

Congress provided an initial dose of federal funding for
high-speed rail in the
1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, dubbed
legislation gives prototype funding to both maglev and steel
wheel systems. The
major accomplishment of the act was to set up a national magnetic
prototype development program, backed by $725 million in federal
money. Of this
total, $500 million comes from the highway trust fund, and the
balance from
general funds. It is expected that this should generate some $1
billion in
industry and private investment as well. ISTEA contains several
other provisions
aimed at advancing both maglev and steel wheel high-speed rail.
Key provisions

  • Authorization of $1 billion in government guaranteed loans
    to finance the
    construction of high-speed, steel wheel systems.
  • A $25 million fund for R&D, into all kinds of high-speed
    ground programs, which
    is designed to spur more private investment.
  • A $30 million outlay from the highway trust fund to
    eliminate hazards of
    rail-highway grade crossings in five corridors.
  • An initial $97.5 million for an Orlando maglev project,
    which will be a
    fourteen-mile line connecting the airport with Disney World. The
    funds are to go
    for the acquisition of the rights-of-way and to subsidize
  • Authorization for states to use federal funds to modify
    existing highway
    facilities to allow high-speed rail systems to use them.

Although the Bush administration signed the bill last year,
recently it sought
to withhold the first year's funding. The House concurred;
however, the Senate
this summer included an appropriation for the first year of $45
million; the
matter now goes to conference.

High-speed rail advocates have made much headway changing the law
on tax-exempt
bonds to give rail the same access that airlines have. Proponents
succeeded this
summer in attaching an amendment to the omnibus energy bill.
Interestingly, the
bill was co-sponsored by Democrat Bob Graham of Florida, home of
Disney World and
conservative Republican Steve Symms of Idaho, home of


Notwithstanding their recent successes, both maglev and
high-speed steel wheel
systems face formidable roadblocks to faster development. In
Congress, despite
the legislative victory of ISTEA, the nascent industry still
lacks the clout of
other transportation lobbies such as highways, airlines, and

More broadly, the image of the new industry is to some extent
tarnished by a
half-century decline in railroads generally. Of course, this bias
is reinforced
by America's love affair with the automobile, which has helped
fuel the biggest
public works project in history, the now almost complete
interstate highway
system. The total cost of the 42,000-plus mile system, was $122
billion, or three
times the original estimate. A similar romance with the airlines
is reflected in
President Bush's fiscal 1993 budget, which contained a call for
$9.4 billion in
funds for civil aviation, of which $8 billion comes from the
aviation trust fund
financed through ticket taxes. By contrast, from 1942 to 1962,
for instance, rail
travelers paid $2 billion in taxes all of which went straight to
the Treasury and
of course there was no rail passenger fund.

Given that rail travel begins with a historic disadvantage, its
reclamation will
require strong executive branch support. Big, highly visible
projects such as
rail corridor lines are also vulnerable to pork-barrel politics,
and it
undoubtedly took a measure of home town concern for Congress to
put high-speed
rail funding into the ISTEA legislation. On the other hand,
Amtrak over the years
has put its trains where the passengers are, with only minimal
meddling from
Congress, the most famous case being Senator Robert Byrd's
lightly traveled
passenger train into the Shenandoahs. Executive branch support
tends to minimize
the risk that a public works project is simply the lowest common
denominator of
parochial congressional interests.

If Clinton should be elected, high-speed rail could get a big
boost as part of
his public infrastracture program. Another Bush administration
would likely
leave high-speed rail initiatives to Congress and the states, and
there would be
less federal support.

The technology, however, has its own logic. It is attractive as a
form of
transportation, as a conversion strategy, and as a dynamic
application of
scientific know-how. Even if the government is not yet committed
to a large-scale
system, regional interest in high-speed lines offers a good way
to test the
potential. And other nations will continue rail development,
whether or not we
do. One way or another, high-speed rail systems are definitely on
the horizon.
For America, the issue is whether they'll be coming on a slow
track or a fast

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