Back in the early 19th century, Baltimore was the birthplace of American railroading, and it's time to do it again. The old technology has served the Baltimore region well for the past 170 odd years, but we are overdue to create a brand new clean technological slate. We cannot ride into the future on the overtaxed MARC commuter rail system, or even on Amtrak's over-hyped Acela.
Just recently, the Maryland Transit Administration completed a study that concluded that a MagLev line between Baltimore and Washington could return an astounding 500% of its operating costs from farebox revenue, which is about ten times as much as the approximate 50% rate of return from MARC.
So why hasn't MagLev been universally embraced by planners and the public? Why hasn't the prospect of getting from Downtown Baltimore to Washington DC in only 18 minutes met with unanimous excitement, especially considering the way that the two metropolitan areas have been rapidly merging together in recent years?
Mainly because the MagLev system studied by the MTA was targeted narrowly at high priced business travellers rather than as transportation for the masses. But with a projected farebox return of 500%, the system would actually MAKE MONEY for every rider who switched from MARC to MagLev. The return on investment was set so that MagLev would look attractive to private investors who would underwrite much of the capital cost, something that is extremely rare in the transit business.
And yet any private entrepreneur knows that one does not maximize profits by maximizing the percentage rate of return on operating cost. If the MagLev fares were reduced so that it would appeal to a larger number of riders, including car and MARC commuters, both profits and ridership could increase dramatically even if the farebox recovery rate went down to "only" somewhat over 100%.
I'm not enough of a technology expert to know that magnetic levitation is the absolute best technology for high speed ground transport, but MagLev has been demonstrated successfully in limited applications in China and Germany, and it has the right raw ingredients - it is fast (200 to 300 mph), it is clean and efficient and it most of all, it lends itself to convergence with other new technologies.
The primary reason MagLev is so potentially attractive is its high speed of 200 to 300 mph. But it is not the speed itself which is most crucial - it's what can be done with such high speeds. It means that the system must be fully automated, because human operators cannot hope to negotiate a fixed guideway at such a high speed. High speed also means that stations need to be off-line so that a train stopped at one station does not clog up the line to prevent trains from passing to get to any other station.
Automation, in turn, means that the operating cost of the system will not depend on the frequency of trains. With an automated system, there is no longer any significant reason to run long trains with a single locomotive set and a single operating crew. Many smaller and more frequent MagLev trains will be just as economical to operate as the traditional bigger and less frequent trains.
Smaller and more frequent trains also mean smaller stations with smaller platforms and smaller guideways. This will hopefully mean that the very tight railroad tunnel under Howard Street in Downtown Baltimore can be used for Maglev. This ancient tunnel is so obsolete for conventional trains that one of the two tracks had to be removed a long time ago so that freight trains could fit, and even so, modern double stack freight trains must still avoid it and detour through Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of automation would be in real-time scheduling and dispatching of MagLev trains, which could respond instantaneously to passenger demand. Trains would be small enough so that as soon as a sufficient number of passengers were present who wanted to go to a given destination, a train would whisk into place to take them there. Inefficient revenue-robbing empty seats would be a thing of the past. Supply and demand would be perfectly synchronized.
NOT JUST COMMUTER RAIL
Automated dispatching and off-line stations would also mean that there would be no reason to limit MagLev service to long distance trips between central cities. MagLev would provide service between downtown and suburbs, just like a conventional light or heavy rail transit system, as well as between suburbs.
Using the old Howard Street tunnel for MagLev would mean that service could be provided up through the Jones Falls valley, perhaps providing service from Downtown to Towson that would take about 8 minutes or so. An ideal location for the Downtown station could be the old Baltimore Arena site at Howard and Baltimore Streets, where direct connections could be created to the heavy and light rail systems.
The Towson MagLev station should be located so that the central light rail line can be adjusted to serve it, and thus provide a rail transit connection to Timonium and Hunt Valley.
The high speed of MagLev would also mean that a route could be relatively circuitous but still efficient. The same line that travels between Downtown and Towson could proceed along the Beltway and White Marsh Boulevard to White Marsh (the additional trip distance taking perhaps five more minutes) and then on to Aberdeen where it would join in with Amtrak and MARC and serve the new expanded military base there.
Between Baltimore and Washington, there would be no need to limit stops to just the airport or New Carrollton. Additional stations could be provided on branch lines to Fort Meade/Odenton, Columbia and perhaps other places. The location of all stations on branches would preserve the speed and capacity of the trunk line, to facilitate its eventual expansion to Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere.
Off-line stations also mean that the branch lines could be located where the stations could be most intimately connected with local destinations and development. MagLev would certainly be a sufficient lure so that every station could support a very high density. Land would certainly become too valuable near any MagLev station to support parking except for very highest priced commuters.
This in turn would further increase the value of MagLev in getting cars off the highways. MagLev would be fast and attractive enough so that riders would be willing to ride feeder buses to stations. Right now, feeder bus service is of limited value to MARC riders because most people do not want to take a 30 minute bus ride on top of a 45 minute train ride. But if the train ride was reduced to 15 or 18 minutes, a 30 minute bus ride wouldn't seem so onerous for the average commuter.
The key word here is the AVERAGE commuter. Contrary to the MTA targeting of MagLev to affluent business riders, the whole concept behind MagLev lends itself more to use by average mainstream commuters, where it could have a huge impact on development and travel patterns throughout the region.
This draws a strong parallel to air travel. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, airlines catered almost exclusively to affluent riders. Then at first gradually, and then suddenly with deregulation, airlines discovered the mainstream mass market. Nowadays, the ridership of most jet flights has more in common with the average commuter bus than it does with the clientele of fifty years ago, when ironically, commuter buses were also more in the mainstream than they are now.
Then when air travel had become mainstreamed, the supersonic Concorde was introduced as the new travel mode of the affluent few. As we now know, this did not work. Concorde never caught on because the affluent few are just too few, and Concorde had no economies of scale.
Similarly, the MTA has attempted to plan for MagLev as another Concorde, and that simply would not work. Perhaps it could start out that way if technical constraints limited its capacity in its early years. But in order for MagLev to be truly effective, it must become a mainstream mode of travel, just as jet airliners have become. All signs point in that direction.
MagLev needs to attract major private investment, which would be recovered through its inherent efficiency and economies of scale, and also by the increased land values at its stations. The era of billions in up-front public funding for transit or highways is just about over.
To do all this, MagLev would need to be a truly mainstream travel mode. It should be able to replace commuter rail for many trips in the MARC corridor. It should also replace many of the trips now envisioned for the Towson and White Marsh corridors in the MTA's ill-fated 2002 regional rail transit plan. MagLev stations should all become regional growth centers and hubs for a comprehensive feeder bus network.
And finally, the Maryland MagLev system should be the first link in a comprehensive new inter-regional rail system which would serve the entire northeastern United States, bringing Baltimore into the national forefront, much as it was 170 years ago as the birthplace of American railroading.