Don't Fly, Levitate: German Maglev as a Travel Alternative in the U.S.


by Bonnie J. Gordon

Cross-posted on IBS

Short-haul flights, usually defined as flights of 500 miles or less, are the wallowing pigs of carbon emissions from transportation. Pretty much the only worse alternative over that distance is 250 Hummer drivers going it solo. Unfortunately for most Americans, unlike the Europeans and Japanese, there is no congenial third way to travel - like, for instance, high-speed rail.

But the silver lining is that we Americans don't have to replace an aging steel wheel infrastructure like the rest of the developed world does. We can just build a new network for the most advanced surface transportation technology available: magnetic levitation rail, or "maglev" for short.

Maglev has come a long way since it debuted for most average Americans at Disney World's Tomorrowland. There are several U.S. maglev projects in the advanced planning stages, almost all of them based on a German system called the Transrapid (www.transrapid.de).

Taking the Transrapid from Atlanta to Orlando would be just as fast as flying, if you include getting out to the airport and check-in time. And traveling via maglev would produce a
fraction of the carbon dioxide emissions.

"Rail has gone as far as it can go," says Phyllis Wilkins, chairperson of the U.S. Maglev Coalition and executive director of Maglev Maryland. "If you want to take it to the next level, you have to go to maglev."

Wilkins has been working on the Baltimore-Washington Maglev Project (www.bwmaglev.com) for more than 15 years. The Transrapid-technology project would connect downtown Baltimore with the District of Columbia, stopping at Baltimore Washington International Airport on the way. Ideally, the BW Maglev line would eventually become part of an expanded route stretching from Boston to Charlotte, stimulating the creation of more efficient travel and housing patterns, making tourism more convenient and affordable, and chopping a few heads off the air and highway pollution hydra in our country's most densely-populated region.

That would be nice. Meanwhile the BW Maglev project has been waiting for the funding to complete its final environmental impact statement for three years, says Wilkins. In 2005 Congress appropriated $90 million for seven maglev pilot projects nationwide, but because of technical problems with the bill the money was never delivered. The bill was rewritten, and finally passed a few weeks ago. Wilkins says that once the funding arrives, the planning phase for the BW project can be wrapped up in about six months.

"Europe and Japan have a well-developed transportation infrastructure because they made the decision generations ago not to be dependent on foreign energy," she adds, "while Americans are only now realizing that we have to link transportation issues and environmental issues. All of us in transportation are becoming optimistic that we are finally being heard."

But ears start closing when officials hear the budget estimates associated with creating a national maglev infrastructure from the ground up. The Baltimore-Washington maglev project alone will require an investment of $3.7 billion in 2002 dollars - and that's for one of the shortest legs of the envisioned Northeast Corridor route.

The Transrapid has all but ground to a halt in Germany itself, where massive political pressure stirred up by the Green party in Munich recently killed plans to build a commercial line connecting the Bavarian capital's central railway station with the city's airport.