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

In 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 congressional 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 of superconducting wire to push the train upward into a floating posture, and locates magnets on the upper side of the guideway. With the superconducting 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 mph.

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 record.

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 under 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 and 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 systems.

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 Supertrains 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 Administration.



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 region.

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 conventional 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 sparsely 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 extensive 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 high-speed rail.



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 government 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 private 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 Steel.

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 home-grown technology.

Pittsburgh will test the concept with an initial nineteen-mile demonstration 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 demonstration will cost about $450-600 million. The ride will take ten minutes. The 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 reduced.

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 business.

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 costs.



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 ISTEA. That legislation gives prototype funding to both maglev and steel wheel systems. The major accomplishment of the act was to set up a national magnetic levitation 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 include:



  • 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 guideway construction.


  • 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 Morrison-Knudsen.




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 conventional rail.

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 one.

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