Passenger rail in the U.S. may be stuck in the early 20th century, but one company wants the Northeast Corridor to fast-forward to the mid-21st. A private group called the Northeast Maglev has assembled a panoply of former governors, transportation secretaries and business executives to lobby for the construction of a magnetic levitating train line from Washington, D.C. to New York City.
Maglev technology uses magnets to propel hovering trains, free of wheel friction, at more than 300 miles per hour. It’s a technically, if not commercially, proven innovation: Shanghai has a line heading from its airport to the edge of the city, and a much more promising line between Tokyo and Osaka is currently under construction in Japan.
The Northeast Maglev would use Japanese technology — it has been “working closely” with engineers from the Central Japan Railroad Company, or JR Central — and hopes to connect D.C. to New York in just one hour by 2040. That’s five years before JR Central, a private company, plans to complete the Tokyo-Osaka line, which it started building without government support.
The U.S. has seen maglev proposals before, all somewhat nutty and unrealistic. The most advanced was an idea for a 39-mile line from D.C.’s Union Station to Baltimore’s Camden Yards, a distance so short that it doesn’t even warrant a conventional, standalone high-speed rail connection.
A maglev line along the Northeast Corridor makes slightly more sense, but that isn’t saying much. Given the country’s apparent inability to build even conventional high-speed rail anywhere in the country, what reason do we have to believe that a much more ambitious and expensive maglev proposal would be any more successful?
American cities suffer from astronomical, record-breaking tunneling and transit construction costs. Given the extremely high speeds and loud sounds associated with maglev trains, tunneling is a necessity. (The majority of Japan’s like will go underground, with the aboveground segments shielded by concrete to avoid creating vast dead zones around the tracks.) If Amtrak thinks it needs $151 billion to bring the Northeast Corridor up to high-speed standards, just imagine what federal officials would need to build a maglev line.
And then there are the high-profile supporters. While at first glance it sounds like an impressive list — former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle; former New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania governors George Pataki, Christine Todd Whitman and Ed Rendell; former transportation secretaries Mary Peters and Rodney Slater — when you dig a little deeper into their résumés, they come up short.
While in office, Pataki was known more for his public works boondoggles than anything else. By most accounts he was the New York governor most responsible for the World Trade Center redevelopment debacle. And an effort to bring the Long Island Rail Road to the Grand Central Terminal, which he started, is perhaps the greatest engineering failure in the history of New York City — its deep cavern station alone will cost more than $2 billion, and is widely regarded as unnecessary. It was built solely to please bureaucratic turf warriors at Metro-North, and will limit operational flexibility for decades to come by precluding any connectivity between the two railroads.
Rendell never took any special interest in infrastructure as governor of Pennsylvania nor as mayor of Philadelphia. Planning failures that occurred during Whitman’s administration contributed to Chris Christie’s decision, years later, to kill the poorly designed Hudson River rail tunnel project known as Access to the Region’s Core.
Mary Peters and Rodney Slater, former secretaries of the federal Department of Transportation, have a bit more experience with infrastructure. But Peters’ primary interest at the DOT (and before that, at the Arizona Department of Transportation) was in highways, not rail, while Slater — now a lobbyist at Patton Boggs — focused on highways and air travel.
Slater isn’t the only lobbyist onboard. Daschle, an ardent lobbyist at DLA Piper, is the head of the Northeast Maglev’s advisory board. The firm also hired American Defense International (which, as the name suggests, focuses on the one industry more prone to multibillion-dollar boondoggles than the transportation sector) and Commonwealth Research Associates (which has lobbied for ill-fated maglev projects since 1999).
The only hint of credibility in the whole operation comes from JR Central, the privatized corporation that runs Japan’s flagship Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Osaka and is working on the parallel maglev line. But the company is desperate to find markets outside Japan, and has a history of getting involved in iffy ventures abroad. Nothing ever came of its interest in California’s conventional high-speed rail project, for example.
Once you get past the hype, the Northeast Maglev is just the latest in a venerable American tradition of getting excited over pie-in-the-sky transportation projects while neglecting tried-and-true ideas. Whether it’s New York’s multibillion-dollar dream of a new Penn Station or national excitement over Elon Musk’s loopy “Hyperloop” proposal — which, despite its glaring engineering flaws, managed to win over a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers — it appears local politicians would rather dream about infrastructure that will never happen than sweat the details on projects that might.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.