Future Tense

Let’s Build a 300-mph Floating Train From New York to D.C.

Maglev trains can travel upwards of 350 mph, floating inches above a guideway thanks to superconducting magnets.

Maglev trains can travel upward of 350 mph, floating inches above a guideway thanks to superconducting magnets.

Illustration courtesy of Northeast Maglev

A year ago I asked, perhaps a little peevishly: “Why can’t we have a 300-mph floating train like Japan?” Apparently some folks in New York and Washington have been wondering the same thing. The New York Times this week has a story about an outfit called Northeast Maglev that wants to bring Japan’s magnetic-levitation train technology to the Northeast Corridor.

The promise: New York to D.C. in an hour flat. That would be an hour and 40 minutes faster than today’s 150-mph Amtrak Acela trains, which are (rather pathetically) the fastest in the United States. In most cases, it would also be significantly faster than flying.

Dreaming about fast trains is one thing. The real question is: Does this have a real chance of happening anytime soon?

Perhaps not. As my colleague Matt Yglesias points out, Amtrak is already struggling to get $7.5 billion just to fix up D.C.’s Union Station. Until or unless conservatives stop hating trains, federal funding for big rail projects is going to remain a tough sell. And forget about the mass-transit-phobic U.S. for a second: Even Japan has soured somewhat on its Tokyo-to-Osaka maglev plans, whose costs have risen to nearly $100 billion. As the Times points out, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is fairly desperate to get other countries to buy into his country’s maglev technology, so that it doesn’t end up as a one-off boondoggle.

But Japan’s desperation could translate to a rare opportunity for the United States. Abe has apparently offered to provide the technology for the first leg of the line, from Baltimore to D.C., for free.

Also in the project’s favor, potentially, is the fact that Northeast Maglev is a private company rather than a government agency. That could make it easier to raise funds privately, from true believers in mass transit, rather than having to achieve consensus on key decisions from gridlocked public officials. The company has also assembled some big names as members of its bipartisan advisory board, including former New York governor George Pataki, former EPA administrator and New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and a pair of former U.S. secretaries of transportation. These are people who know how to peddle influence, twist arms, and push things through.

One question is how committed they’ll end up being to the project. The fact that several of them accepted a junket to Japan to test out the maglev there doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll stick with the project when the going gets tough. Still, it’s encouraging to hear Pataki tell the Times, “This is amazing. This is the future.

I’ve been covering high-speed rail for a while, and two things I’ve learned are:

  1. Big projects inevitably end up taking more time and money than their supporters ever let on.
  2. It can be worth going ahead and doing them anyway, because the benefits can last for generations and go far beyond simple time savings for wealthy commuters.  

Unlike the myriad half-cooked regional high-speed-rail plans that sprouted up around the country at the beginning of Obama’s first term, maglev in the nation’s densest corridor sounds like it could be the right technology in the right place at the right time. The odds are still against it, of course. As the Economist points out, the $50 million that Northeast Maglev has raised so far “would not even get the maglev out of downtown D.C.” Still, I can’t help but be pleased that someone’s at least giving this idea a try. Say what you will about the pros and cons of mass transit, but it facilitates urban density, and urban density is America’s only hope of continuing to grow for generations without ravaging what’s left of its natural environment. 

More coverage of high-speed-rail in Slate