April 20, 2014

Maglev’s future bleak after Pa. firm’s bankruptcy

The likelihood of 300-mph magnetic levitation trains operating in the United States anytime soon took another body blow in July when a private-sector firm planning a maglev route in Pennsylvania filed for bankruptcy.

Maglev uses powerful electro-magnets to levitate, propel, guide and stop the trains. They are not wheeled trains and require a separate right-of-way.

Maglev trains are under development in Japan and China. The Japan maglev project remains in a test and demonstration phase; while in China, a maglev train is in operation between Shanghai and its airport, moving passengers 19 miles in just over seven minutes at 268 mph. 

In the United States, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century directed the Federal Railroad Administration to initiate a competition to plan and build a maglev project. Congress appropriated $55 million for preconstruction planning, and up to $950 million for final engineering and construction of the project, but required up to two-thirds matching funds from state, local and private contributions.

The legislative kicker was that to be eligible for funding, the project must demonstrate that it would turn a profit.

Two routes were deemed viable by the FRA – one extending 39 miles between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.; the other a 54-mile line linking Pittsburgh International Airport in Pennsylvania with the nearby cities of Monroeville and Greensburg to the east.

The capital cost of the Baltimore-Washington project was estimated by the FRA at $5.1 billion (2007 dollars); and the capital cost of the Pittsburgh project at $5.25 billion (2010 dollars).
In 2008, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Safety Act: A Legacy for Users authorized another $90 million for maglev project development, with 50 percent earmarked for a maglev project linking Las Vegas and Primm, Nev.; and the other 50 percent for the Pittsburgh and Baltimore-Washington projects, and an additional project linking Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn.  A 20 percent non-federal match was required for this latest authorization.

The U.S. General Accounting Office, in 1993, estimated the cost of maglev at some $60 million per mile, versus a cost of between $3 million and $13 million per mile for more conventional high-speed trains. The 1993 $60 million per-mile figure would be $91 million per-mile in 2010 dollars.

The Baltimore-Maryland, Pittsburgh and Las Vegas maglev trains are merely in the planning stage, with environmental impact studies underway. There has been little optimism that sufficient funds could be found in the near term to advance these projects much further.

This was emphasized with the bankruptcy of the firm planning the Pittsburgh maglev route. The company said its bankruptcy filing was an effort to reorganize – that it is still awaiting some $28 million in federal grants that were not provided as the required non-federal matching funds had not been obtained, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
In May 2010, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rode the Japanese maglev test train at a top speed of 312 mph as part of an Obama administration promotion for high-speed trains in the United States. Central Japan Railway Co. expressed an interest in participating in the construction of the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., maglev train.

Subsequently, the FRA denied the Baltimore-Washington project any new federal funds, calling it “not ready” for additional funding.