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

by Bonnie J. Gordon

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.

Objections to the project, according to extensive information on the Bavarian Gree
ns' website and a range of materials provided by the party upon enquiry, centered primarily on the ever-rising costs of digging a special tunnel for the Transrapid under Munich's historic downtown district. The Greens did not seem to have a problem with the Transrapid on principle; the question was whether the multi-billion-euro price tag for the project was worth it to cut 15 minutes off the travel time of the relatively convenient mass transit Munich airport link.

The Greens were also using the Transrapid issue to widen a few rare cracks that had appeared in the bulwark of the ruling conservative Christian Social Union party. Their tactics included the creation of an online game picturing CSU politicians throwing euro bills off the roof of the capitol while a voracious red maglev train sped in to gobble them up. The player, armed with a virtual butterfly net, was encouraged to "Stop the Transrapid" by catching the euros before they fell into the engine's sharp-toothed jaws.

A citizen's initiative and a nature conservancy organization called a demonstration in Munich last November that attracted an estimated 13,000 people calling for an end to the Transrapid project. The CSU took it off the budget in March, and the Greens all but audibly chortled in the press statement released after their victory.
Safety issues have also contributed to the Transrapid's tarnished image in its homeland. In September 2006 a train on the test track in the northern German town of Lathen, where tourists have been able to take joy rides on the Transrapid since 1984, crashed at over 100 mph into a maintenance vehicle left unsecured on the track. The accident shredded the lead car and killed 23 of the 31 people on board. Various investigations pointed to human error as the cause of the tragedy.

The accident closed the Lathen test track, which has not yet reopened. Now that the Munich track will not even be built, the only demonstration of the Transrapid available on earth is in China - an 18.6 mile-long, eight-minute connection from downtown Shanghai to Pudong Airport. The Shanghai Transrapid was the first world's commercial high-speed maglev system, starting operations in 2004 and scheduled to expand at some point after the end of the Olympics.

"We're devastated by the decision to cancel the Munich project - it couldn't have come at a worse time," says BW Maglev's Wilkins. "I'm very concerned about the decisions the Transrapid consortium is making now, because the tide is turning at last - after 20 years. If we could get rid of short-haul air traffic just in the Northeast Corridor, it will have a ripple effect across the entire country. It's still going to be a big fight, because infrastructure needs are enormous, the dollar amounts are enormous. And now you have to go to Shanghai to even have a look at the Transrapid."

The basic problem with Transrapid lines within Germany is that the country, although it is one of Europe's biggest, is still almost too small to make efficient use of top maglev speeds. That is even more true when the routes are less than two dozen miles long, like the planned Munich airport link was.

Germans' discontent with the Transrapid is also rooted in the fact that they already have a pretty good intercity rail system which, although it is more expensive to operate and maintain than the Transrapid and isn't anywhere near as fast, has the considerable advantage of existing. It will take more than the promise of surface travel times that could compete with those in aviation to get the thrifty Germans to spend a big chunk of their national budget on such a project.

But still, news reports after the Lathen accident quoted a local politician saying that the Transrapid should properly be thought of as an alternative to short-haul flights. In the long run, with the skies over Europe crowded to capacity and the continent's energy worries ballooning, a European Union investment in power-efficient maglev would make sense.

"Maglev is no more expensive [to build] than any other form of transportation," says Wilkins, "and in the long run it's a lot less expensive to maintain and operate." Transrapid International, the consortium led by electronics giant Siemens and steelmaker ThyssenKrupp that builds and markets the Transrapid, cites independent studies that peg its technology's maintenance costs at about one-third of those for
high-speed rail - thanks to low wear and tear due to frictionless propulsion.

But the true wave of the future will not be found in maglev's technological superiority to old-fashioned steel wheels. The great maglev mystery is much more quotidian: How do we pay for it?
The BW Maglev project is supposed to be a public-private partnership, financed by both Washington and Wall Street.

"What has to be proven is not the technology," which clearly works, says Wilkins. "It's the financing. That's what no one has seen with their own eyes."

Today, a perfect storm of skyrocketing gas and plane ticket prices, expanding environmental awareness in the U.S. and a last-century infrastructure that is literally falling apart at the seams just might whip up the political will to make the huge, long-term but desperately-needed investment in maglev.

Especially if Barack Obama, whose website says he "supports the development of high-speed rail
networks across the country," enters the White House next year.

Bonnie J. Gordon is a freelance writer who has lived in Germany for more than 16 years. She is based near Munich.