Conventional High-Speed Rail Vs. Magnetically Levitated Trains: Was Maglev Ever In Contention?4 min read

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It is not every day that I read commentary about that “other” high-speed rail technology: maglev, short for magnetic levitation. But when I do – be it an editorial or letter to the editor drawing attention to maglev – I can’t help but wonder what the motivation is behind such commentary? This is true now more than ever given the estimated price tag for California’s planned high-speed rail system is $98.5 billion (this cost in 2033 dollar terms). All things being equal, do magnetically levitated rail systems just make much better sense? In a Fresno Bee letter, Fresno County Council of Governments Transportation Technical Advisory Committee member Dennis Manning offers his take.

“Besides being 50% faster,” Manning writes, “maglev is proving to be cheaper, safer, quieter, with less environmental impact than conventional rail. Given the superior economics, maglev could be put in place years ahead of conventional rail.”

Manning references existing maglev systems in China and Japan and in China and Korea as well, “more maglev is under development.” In Brazil and Britain, meanwhile, this “wheel-less” mode is under consideration. In a sense, maglev is being considered for use here in the United States too.

So my question is, how much cheaper is maglev than conventional high-speed rail? The same goes for how much safer, quieter and “cleaner”? What about operations? Would maglev energy costs be less, equal to or higher than conventional HSR?

I went looking for answers. So, I contacted Manning directly. Who better to get answers from than the source? Here is what he had to say.

“One of the cost advantages of maglev comes from the ability to climb up to 10% grades where conventional [rail] is limited to about 3%. It means much less tunneling when traveling through the mountains. It also means the ability to achieve more direct routing.  

“Another reason for favorable maglev costs is the loading is less. The HSR locomotives require much heavier support construction for the concentrated wheel loading. Maglev is lighter and [the weight is] more evenly distributed.  

“Also keep in mind being a newer technology the prospects for lowering the cost of maglev over time is better than for conventional.” Manning wrote.

On energy efficiency, Manning surmised, “Efficiency is tricky. Conventional is probably more efficient below 200 mph, but less efficient as the speed rises. This is assuming the same load factor. If maglev enjoyed higher ridership then the per passenger mile efficiency would rise.”

Even understanding this, one still has to ask: If maglev is superior to conventional high-speed rail in nearly every respect, then why isn’t maglev enjoying greater market share?

Yonah Freemark at The Transport Politic seems emphatic: “Perhaps more problematic is the fact that there is a very limited business case for maglev compared to traditional high-speed rail; unlike electric-catenary rail-running trains, maglev features expensive, proprietary technology that is completely incompatible with existing lines, so improvements in one location will only affect commuters in that area. A Baltimore-Washington maglev project does not help commuters between Washington and Philadelphia, unless they are willing to transfer in Baltimore; on the other hand, speeding up the existing tracks between the first two cities would be quite effective for reducing travel times for everyone in the corridor.

“A recent study of a proposed maglev line between LAX Airport and Ontario Airport, via downtown Los Angeles, demonstrated very few advantages of a potential magnetic line over a traditional one — it would be only about 10% faster, would attract only 10% more customers, but would cost an eye-popping 60% more to build. Worse, the maglev corridor would have no direct connections with the planned (and partially funded!) California High-Speed Rail project,” Freemark wrote.

Manning seems to have no qualms acknowledging, “Maglev faces the problem of unseating the incumbent. For every person working on a maglev system there are probably a thousand making a living on conventional, and that includes consultants. When it comes to California High Speed maglev never had a chance. Even before there was any consideration of maglev it was deemed that the system must be ‘interoperable’ with existing rail. No matter how superior maglev would be on other performance characteristics it couldn’t be chosen.”

So one has to wonder, is this the last we’ll hear of maglev? Stay tuned.

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Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.

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