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Reason Foundation

Out of Control Policy Blog

Maglev is not Realistic for U.S.

Baruch Feigenbaum
October 19, 2012, 1:51pm

A recently proposed U.S. freight Maglev system is more intriguing than previous systems but it is still completely unrealistic for the U.S. On October 15th the Transportation Research Forum reviewed the book “The Fight for Maglev: Making America the World Leader in 21st Century Transport” by James Jordan, James Powell and Gordon Danby. The 90-minute forum featured author Jordan, formerly energy research director for the U.S. Navy, discussing the book and reviewer Joseph Warren of the Arlington Transit Advisory Committee analyzing many of the book’s claims.

Mr. Jordan presented a new take on Maglev rail. According to Jordan, a private company could construct a 300 mph Maglev system with no government capital subsidies elevated above interstate highway medians. It would require only a $600 million government funded test facility. Jordan explained this minimum investment is all that is needed since Maglev is ten times cheaper than present day high-speed rail. He also claimed that using Maglev would cost only $0.05 cents per passenger mile for shipped goods compared to the current average truck costs of $0.10 cents per mile. Jordan achieves much of the savings for 2nd generation Maglev by using electric power to keep the system cold instead of creating an electric charge. 

Jordan’s proposal improves upon past Maglev plans. Previously, rail proponents have focused exclusively on the passenger market. Mr. Jordan rightly suggests there will never be sufficient passengers in most U.S. markets for high-speed ground transport to be a success. Currently, freight companies play a major role in most railroad activities. Creating a system that transports both freight and passengers makes good business sense. Mr. Powell also correctly contrasts the 2nd generation of Maglev technology, which co-authors Powell and Danby developed, to existing German and Japanese trains. This 2nd generation technology is cheaper, although still very expensive when compared to almost every other form of transportation. 

However, as in most high-speed ground transportation proposals either high-speed-rail or Maglev there are many major holes. First, if a private company can built this multi billion-dollar investment by itself, why is it waiting on the federal government to build a $600 million federal research center? Relative to the risk of a multi-billion dollar bet, $600 million is chump-change. Jordan counters that the government is preventing investment by providing conventional high-speed rail grants and loans. But with high-speed rail mostly stuck in neutral, there are almost certainly other factors at play. Perhaps it is the unrealistic projected ridership that Mr. Jordan predicts. As pointed out by reviewer Warren, Jordan predicts Maglev will capture 1/2 of passenger highway trips, 3/4 of the truck freight trips and 2/3 of the passenger aviation trips. This is simply not believable. Studies of HSR have shown that two-hundred-mile-per-hour trains will capture 10 percent of the auto travel market at most. Three-hundred-mile-per-hour Maglev trains will not divert substantially more travel. Automobile users value flexibility, not price nor speed. Maglev rail will not offer flexibility. Only two HSR routes have captured 2/3 of the aviation market and these corridors are unique. These two corridors located in France and Japan, are very dense routes travel through densely populated areas that were built before the ascendancy of the automobile. Further, since freight trucks hauled by Maglev will need to be driven from the Maglev terminal to thier final destination, short trips from the rail station to the retail or industrial destination will still be made by road. In fact Maglev will likely induce further short trips. 

There are other cost issues. Second generation Maglev vehicles has never before been constructed. Since the construction costs of new modes of transport almost always exceed thier estimates, these estimates should be used with caution. While China's Maglev system differs, the system suggests the uncertainty of cost estimates. And the Chinese systems true costs were minimized by creative government accounting. Maglev operating costs of $0.40 to $1.60 per mile provide a very large spread. More precise numbers based on different circumstances are needed. Further, instead of using a standard depreciation cost of $0.08 per mile, the author uses $0.30, which provides very different numbers. The authors also claim enormous cost savings as a result of using prefabricated materials; these cost savings seem very unlikely. 

Further, most high-speed-rail plans will build trains only along selected routes such as Chicago to St. Louis or Houston to Dallas. In order for this goods movement system to work, Maglev trains would need to be built along almost all interstate routes. The costs of Maglev in New York State are out of this world. In Wyoming they would be out of this galaxy.

Also problematic is the book’s obsession with environmental doom. While Maglev proponents may want the Sierra Club’s support, quality research should not be compromised to form a coalition. The book relies on peak oil theories from more than ten years ago. Hydraulic fracturing and the discovery of natural gas have pushed peak-oil back significantly. The Green revolution allows farms to generate significantly more food on many fewer acres. This eliminates the preserving farmland claim. The book seems to see two future possibilities: electric cars or Maglev. Hybrids, increased carpooling/bus ridership, and technological advances that reduce petroleum use are not considered. 

The author proposes some draconian policy changes. Since Maglev infrastructure would be built on or adjacent to Interstate highway medians, building new lanes on these highways would be very challenging. This includes not merely general-purpose lanes but managed lanes, truck lanes and bus lanes. This would not work in major cities where most highways do not have any open land to build tracks. The study does not fully consider any other options such as truck lanes, next-generation aviation’s ability to decrease air congestion or partially automated cars’ ability to decrease road congestion. Comparing costs with High-Speed Rail but not aviation or buses creates a strawman. An extensive conventional high-speed rail system is as equally unlikely as Maglev to be built in the U.S. It is akin to a city comparing its economic situation to Detroit and suggesting its economic losses are a good thing because they are smaller than Detroit’s.

Perhaps some major changes could make a better case for Maglev. But based on the numbers, the U.S. will not be an appropriate market for a comprehensive Maglev system for at least the next 50 years if ever.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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