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Driving traffic-clogged roads to Baltimore is no fun. Ditto taking a crowded shuttle from Washington D.C. to New York. Which is why for the commuting masses (like yours truly), something tantalizing’s in the air: a privately funded company’s vision to build a $10 billion, high-speed, magnetically propelled train that would cut travel between the nation’s capital and Baltimore to 15 minutes, about the time it takes to casually walk a dozen city blocks.
Compare that with today’s hours-long commutes by car, train or plane between cities on the East Coast or, for that matter, anywhere in the country. That travel in the Northeast — among the nation’s densest population corridors — can be so irksome is telling: As bad as it is, it has the best, most extensive passenger train service in the country, albeit one woefully in need of new cars, new tracks, new everything.
One possible solution sounds a sight better: a train, propelled by magnetic levitation — maglev — that could flash-speed at 300-plus miles per hour between Boston and Washington. This would make them bedroom communities of one another: about an hour-and-a-half apart and about the time it takes to drive from downtown Manhattan to Stamford, Conn., with traffic. (Or to cross the George Washington Bridge if there’s a political kerfuffle going on.)
But two competing technologies – one a futurist’s dream, one a pragmatic compromise – are battling for support, financially and politically, to solve what no one except lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry disputes is a problem: the U.S. is light years behind competitors — certainly China, Europe and Japan — in
updating its passenger-rail system.
High speed rail passengers heading to their seats at the Barcelona Sants rail station
“It’s been cool technology for 40 years, but the political and financial hurdles are just too high for a new, high-cost, largely unproven technology,” says Kevin Brubaker at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a nonprofit promoting green-friendly, business-friendly transportation. Translation: not maglev, but its more practical cousin – a high-speed, steel-wheel electric train, which at a top speed of 220 mph runs nearly 50 percent faster than Amtrak and costs much less to build than maglev. (Boston and D.C. would still be neighbors, but at 400-plus miles apart, more distant ones.)
In either case, the potential to do something serves as an enough-already reminder: whichever technology wins out, we’re still waiting.
Since 2003, China has constructed more than 6,000 miles of high-speed electric lines, which typically means trains running from 150 to 220 miles an hour. China’s building an additional 5,600 miles of lines, and planning 2,300 more. Europe has more than 11,000 miles in operation — under construction or planned.
And the U.S.? It has a mere 224 high-speed lines, all running between Washington and Boston. Nothing more is under construction. An 800-mile line planned in California, initially from Los Angeles to San Francisco, is moving forward, but not without being slowed by opponents.
Trying to catch up gets complicated.
Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, envisions an electric high-speed system akin to what the nation’s airline have: Federal or state governments would own and operate train tracks and stations, with private train lines transporting people. The private lines could operate solo or partner with Amtrak, which now shoulders more than 75 percent of the passenger travel in the Northeast, or some combination of that.
Northeast Maglev’s Jeff Hirschberg says the Baltimore-Washington rail line could be up and running in 10 years, if regulatory hurdles and environmental assessments go as planned — undeniably a long way off – but it would be a big step forward.
Either way — maglev or electric high-speed – this would not be Amtrak 2.0 .
A passenger waits to board the maglev train at its station in Shanghai, China on June 24, 2009.
This article first appeared on www.ozy.com
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