LANHAM – The list of local train service acronyms currently includes WMATA, AMTRAK, and MARC, and SCMaglev could join the ranks if an area company gets its way.
Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail is the private entity hoping to operate a SCMaglev (superconducting magnetic levitation) train service between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. The train would be able to take commuters between the two cities in just 15 minutes. This week, the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) held a series of scoping meetings in five communities to inform residents about the potential project and get input ahead of the preparation of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to determine its feasibility.
The meetings took place in Baltimore, Odenton, Washington, D.C. and Lanham, at the West Lanham Hills Fire Hall. Although no route for the potential train has been determined, the study area includes the northern and north-central parts of Prince George’s County, roughly the area west of I-95 and north of Route 214.
Megan Cogburn, a transportation planner, said public feedback at the meetings had been “about a 50-50 mix” between support and concerns, with the latter centering around the project’s costs and the potential effects on existing infrastructure in the corridor.
“There’s been a lot of enthusiasm for the new technology,” she said. “‘Bringing the U.S. into the 21st century’ is one of the quotes I’ve heard a lot.”
SCMaglev technology is the next level of train technology that has been in use in Japan since the 1960s, according to Furqan Siddiqi, executive vice president of Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail. All maglev trains use the magnetic force generated by electric currents flowing through their guideway for propulsion. SCMaglev uses certain materials with electrical resistance approaching zero (called superconductors) to create a more powerful, longer-lasting current. This allows the train to go faster – a SCMaglev train was clocked at a world-record 375 miles per hour. Siddiqi said the train here would likely travel at around 311 mph.
“The faster you go, the more time it takes to stop and go, and here there are shorter distances,” he said.
The plan is for three stops, one in D.C., one at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, and one in Baltimore City. The exact alignment of the tracks – which would be 46 feet wide in total with two travel lanes – has not been determined, but the train has to be either elevated or underground, not at grade, because there is no opportunity for other traffic to cross the tracks.
Siddiqi said SCMaglev technology has many advantages. The trains do not touch the track once they surpass 70 mph, instead levitating using the magnetic field, and half the technology is found in the cars themselves, making maintenance easier. The design of the guideway makes it impossible for a train to derail, according to Siddiqi. He also said the Japanese SCMaglev train currently running is extremely safe and reliable.
“In this million-mile run, there have been zero fatalities, ever,” he said. “It is very efficient. The total time delay was 30 seconds in 18 months.”
However, the train would be expensive to build, Siddiqi said. A Japanese bank has pledged to cover half of the cost, because it is Japanese technology it would like to see purchased by other countries. The other half would come from private sector investors and the federal government, which, through the United States Department of Transportation, has already awarded the project $27.8 million to begin these studies. No state or local funds would be requested, Siddiqi said.
MDOT is involved in the process because a state agency had to apply for the grant on behalf of the private company, according to Brad Smith, a spokesman.
“Our role is really just to facilitate the private sector’s effort,” he said.
The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) is also in charge of completing the draft EIS. That isn’t expected until winter 2018. Next year, the preliminary alternatives for alignment – the actual path the train would take – are projected to be released, with a report on the same planned for spring 2017. The final decision on whether to move ahead could come by spring 2019.
Gov. Larry Hogan has signaled his support for the project, and high-speed train technology was included in the Memorandum of Cooperation signed between Maryland and Japan in May 2015.
“The ability to travel between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in only 15 minutes will be absolutely transformative, not just for these two cities, but for our entire state,” Hogan said in a statement Nov. 7 after the USDOT grant was awarded. “This grant will go a long way in helping us determine our next steps in this transportation and economic development opportunity.”
Locally, not everyone is as behind the plan. Greenbelt City Council Member Rodney Roberts indicated at the Dec. 12 meeting that he was not a fan of maglev train.
“I would be interested in the council writing a letter to the governor opposing a maglev train,” he said. “We’ve looked at it before. It was a horrible idea and it’s still a horrible idea.”
The council did not have a response to Roberts’ suggestion, but he said he may raise the issue again.
Siddiqi said if the Baltimore to Washington plan is a success, his company eventually hopes to have the train run all the way from Washington to New York, a journey that would take about an hour. He said the northeast corridor is a great fit for a project like this.
“It is only 2 percent of the land but one-sixth of the population lives here. We’re trying to give them the gift of time,” he said. “This will change the game on how and where people live and work.”