In September, a group called the Northeast Maglev applied for a railway franchise in Maryland, as a step in developing a new passenger train between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The roughly 40-mile ride would take 15 minutes, less than half the time of Amtrak’s fastest option, the Acela Express, and a quarter the time of the MARC regional commuter train. That’s an exciting prospect for rail fans and frequent riders like me, given that the political prospects for high-speed trains have appeared to be nil since 2011, when the governors of three states turned down billions of dollars in stimulus funding for passenger rail.
Despite that setback, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is proceeding with projects in five regions, which together are home to 65 percent of the country’s population: the Pacific Northwest, from Eugene, Ore., to Vancouver, British Columbia; California, from San Francisco and Sacramento to San Diego; the South, from the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex to Oklahoma City; the Eastern seaboard, from Charlotte, N.C., to Boston and Buffalo, N.Y.; and a spoked Midwestern configuration, centered on Chicago.
As of August, $2.4 billion had been spent, according to Time, “much of it on planning, design, and other pre-construction work.” Nearly the entire $10.1 billion overall budget has been committed. The DOT has fielded applications for more than $75 billion from 39 states, the District of Columbia, and Amtrak, which should come as no surprise given the sorry state of the nation’s infrastructure.
Current efforts focus largely on upgrades to existing lines, like the one between Chicago and St. Louis. Frustratingly, the trains on these routes still may not be fast enough to compete with air travel, which rather defeats the purpose. But ground-up, truly high-speed construction is part of the plan in some regions. An entirely new line has been proposed between Dallas and Houston, for instance. And construction inches forward on the California corridor.
Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, based in New Haven, Conn., designed the 1.5-million-square-foot Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco as the California route’s northern hub, evidence that high-speed rail can translate directly into architecture commissions—and not just for stations, but for a host of transit-oriented developments.
The Northeast is the country’s most populous and prosperous region, and it needs better passenger train service. Amtrak’s Acela, the closest thing in the U.S. to high-speed rail, has massive ridership. Alas, it peaks at 135 miles per hour on the run from D.C. to New York, and according to The Washington Post averages just 84 miles per hour due to infrastructural inadequacies. That’s a snail’s pace compared to 200-mile-per-hour top speed of Japan’s famous bullet train—which is 50 years old.
The Northeast Maglev hopes to extend its proposed D.C.-to-Baltimore line all the way to New York. Maglev trains, as their name suggests, levitate on magnetic fields while traveling at high speed (though they do rely on a wheel-and-rail system at low speed). The technology was developed by the Central Japan Railway Co., and the Japanese government, eager for an export opportunity, is offering $5 billion toward the $10 billion estimated cost of the D.C.-to-Baltimore run.
Amtrak has its own proposal for the Northeast Corridor: two entirely new tracks configured for conventional (as opposed to maglev) high-speed trains, for a development cost of $151 billion, a travel time of 94 minutes from D.C. to New York, and speeds of 220 miles per hour. By contrast, on the same route, the Northeast Maglev claims a cost of $100 billion, a travel time of 60 minutes, and speeds of 300-plus miles per hour. By the numbers, the maglev proposal looks like a winner: lower cost, higher speed, less time. If only the rest of the country had such options. Trains may seem hopelessly old-school, but they really are the future.