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To Maglev or Not To Maglev?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan E. Baer
May 8, 2021

Among its proponents, magnetic levitation (maglev) train technology may incite limitless visions of a clean future with fast and effortless intercity travel. Others believe the near term reality of maglev train technology falls short of this vision. A maglev train currently operates in China and runs between a suburb of Shanghai and the airport. A hotly debated proposal also exists to build a maglev train between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. in the United States. The purpose of this essay is to briefly describe a maglev train and then to discuss advantages and disadvantages of maglev train systems.

Basically, a maglev train runs on a custom track with embedded electromagnets. The train consists of rail cars with opposing electromagnets that lift and guide the cars while also pushing them down the track and bringing them to a stop. The mag part of the name comes from the use of electromagnetic force to lift, propel and stop the car. The lev part of the name comes from the levitation or lift of the car. The idea of a levitating train began in the early twentieth century, and serious study of the technology started in the 1930s.

Proponents of maglev trains cite a number of advantages. As the fastest train in the world, the maglev’s super-fast speed serves as its main benefit. A Japanese train not yet in service recently set a 374 miles per hour record. In addition, because the rail car floats above the track by a few millimeters, no friction from the wheels occurs. Being powered by electricity with no moving parts like wheels or wearable parts like brakes means the maglev train’s maintenance costs could be low. Some also claim that a maglev system will be quieter than conventional rail systems.

Proponents also mention additional benefits. Like conventional trains, maglev train terminals can be close to urban centers, and passengers enter and exit the train through multiple doors to platforms. Unlike airplanes, maglev trains will not be delayed by normal weather events or traffic congestion, so passengers can expect more reliable and exact departure and arrival times. The dedicated tracks and control systems may ensure that maglev trains are one of the safest systems. In addition, proponents argue that building a maglev train system can generate thousands of jobs. Another compelling benefit of maglev systems is their potential to address climate change by increasing potentially low carbon emitting electrical rail and reducing high carbon emitting air travel.

On the other hand, opponents of maglev trains offer a number of cogent disadvantages. The capital cost of a maglev train serves as an often cited drawback. For example, according to a January 2021 article in The Washington Post, building a proposed maglev train system between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. would cost between $13.8 billion and $16.8 billion. Many ask why a significant amount of money shouldn’t instead be used to improve the region’s existing public transit systems.

In addition, communities located along the route of a maglev train will experience disruption related to the system’s construction, including significant losses of revenue for businesses located along the construction path. In the case of the proposed maglev route between Baltimore and D.C., opponents argue that Prince George’s County, a majority-minority community, will experience many of the negative effects of the train. Opponents also point to the potential negative environmental impacts from a maglev train, such as vibration and electromagnetic radiation. Also, the proposed maglev route between Baltimore and D.C. would cut through parts of the Patuxent Research Refuge, a conservation area for more than 270 species of birds and other wildlife.

Opponents also frequently include the cost of riding a maglev train as a drawback. As an example, the expected average fare to ride the proposed maglev train between Baltimore and DC is $60 for a one-way trip while the cost of a one-way trip between Baltimore and D.C. on Amtrak or the MARC commuter train is $46 or $8, respectively. The higher cost to ride a maglev train leads to transportation inequity if only the more affluent can afford to purchase a ticket to ride the train. Will a maglev train system become the “new Concorde” for rail passengers?

Both opponents and proponents of maglev train systems provide some enthusiastic and compelling arguments. The purpose of this essay is to describe these arguments and raise questions rather than choose a side. However, a one-size-fits-all policy solution that casts maglev train systems as either all good or all bad does not seem appropriate for such a complex issue. Instead, policymakers around the world need to carefully examine and evaluate the specific circumstances, context, advantages and disadvantages related to each individual maglev train system proposal in order to determine whether or not to proceed.  


Author:
Susan E. Baer
Contributing Faculty Member, School of Public Policy and Administration
Walden University
Email: [email protected]

Susan E. Baer, Ph.D., is a Contributing Faculty Member in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Walden University where she teaches doctoral students. Email: [email protected]

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