Is a 360 MPH Train In America’s Future?

High speed rail has long been a frustrating discussion in the United States.  The only true example of high-speed rail currently operating in the US is the Amtrak Acela line, which runs between Washington DC and Boston.  I’ve ridden it a number of times and it’s a clean, comfortable way to get from DC to downtown NY and vice versa.

The NY Times is reporting about a group trying to bring a new high-speed option to the Northeast Corridor.  It’s called a maglev train (for magnetic elevation) and tops out at the eye-popping speed of 360 mph.  For comparison, Amtrak runs at a peak speed of 150 mph, though it rarely reaches that speed along its route.  If you think this is pie-in-the-sky dreaming, think again.  There’s already a partial line built for the Japanese maglev to run on as well as a maglev train operating at speeds around 250 mph in China.

The technology actually sounds pretty cool.  The train actually has rubber wheels as opposed to the steel wheels of conventional trains. That’s because once it gets above 90 mph, the train starts to hover a few inches above the track.

America's Future

Right now, the Acela trains take just under 3 hours to make it from DC to New York.  This is actually somewhat competitive with airplanes if you need to head to Manhattan, since all the airports in the NYC area are a bridge/tunnel/train/bus away from there.  The new train proposed by the Japanese effort would do this journey in about an hour.

There are lots of questions here.  For starters, the construction costs are wickedly expensive.  The article quotes the price tag to build a line between Tokyo and Osaka at $100 billion.  Without taking into account differences in topography, the Tokyo-Osaka line is likely about 25% longer than the distance between Washington DC and Manhattan.

Then, you need to consider that Amtrak doesn’t let Acela run at 150 mph from end to end right now. Some/most of that is for safety reasons. I can certainly say I’ve experienced some of that.  I recently took the train from the BWI (Baltimore-Washington Airport) stop up to NYC to catch a Yankee game.  I was standing on the platform when they announced the Acela express train (that doesn’t stop in BWI) was approaching and to be aware.  No biggie.

The Acela train came through on one of the middle tracks, probably a solid 30 feet from me.  It wasn’t enough to knock me over, but the column of wind that train was pushing definitely moved me.  The maglev train would certainly need new tracks, but likely would use some/all of the existing rights of way, as there’s not a lot of undeveloped land in that corridor.  That would mean frequently slowing the train down considerably.

I’m pessimistic this will ever happen.  Amtrak is a bit of a mess in and has been for quite some time.  There’s still genuine uncertainty if their crown jewel, Acela, even makes money.  And, I think most folks can agree that the current state of national politics doesn’t show a likely path to agreement on a large amount of new funding for something like the maglev train.

It wouldn’t be the first time the aspirations of a bullet train were discounted and overcome.  As this article notes, it was just about 50 years ago when the first generation of “bullet trains” were introduced by the Japanese.

You can read the original announcement 50 years ago, linking Tokyo and Osaka with the new Hikari just in time for the Olympic games.

There were a few nuggets I wasn’t aware of in reading these articles.  They give me some hope that there might be advancement of limited installations of the new ultra high-speed trains just coming in to service.  I’d still bet against it anytime soon, but it’s fun to imagine a one-hour ride from Washington, DC to New York without having to worry about rush-hour traffic from Laguardia or JFK.

7 Comments

  1. The Shanghai airport express train to/from PVG to the city center is a MAGLEV train. It was a very very smooth ride. I hope it comes here in the USA and the only market I can think of where it would work is the northeast corridor from Washington DC, Philadelphia, NYC, to Boston.

    At the moment, I normally take the bus since they’re so cheap. If time is a factor, I’d take the acela.

    1. Joey, I had heard about the Shanghai train. That one is supposed to top out at 260 mph, about 100 mph less than the Japanese maglev, and still an incredible speed, greater than 100 mph faster than Acela.

  2. Sounds pretty cool! I wonder how much more likely this project is to be carried out than the Hyperloop project (which is proposed, yet heavily debated, to be much cheaper).

  3. A Maglev would be built by redeveloping I-95. I’m assuming it or some other form of high speed rail will be part of the rebuild as the northeast corridor expects 40 million more folks by 2050. It only makes sense for better and more frequent transportation options to be part of the design build. The tough thing to do is to get a certain person in Washington to understand that investing in infrastructure even if it means increasing revenue is good for the United States because it’s good for business. Do you think Grover reads travel blogs?

  4. Like you said, this corridor, though already developed for “high speed”(110mph Acela doesn’t meet global definition of 150mph for high speed but the rest of the world is happy to let our pathetic train plain with poop in the sandbox if it wants to) would be one of the more difficult to develop with the relative density of the NE. That being said, if you’re concerned about topography and population displacement/density and its effect on rail development, Japan is nothing but hills upon lack of flat land, and is one of the more densely populated nations in the world while being the home to and biggest champion of high speed rail. If they can do it we need to pull up our socks and quit moaning. The national highway plan was an enormous investment when it came into being in the 50s. We still have highways that aren’t very densely traveled…but they’re available because we decide as a country/state/county/etc. that we want to be able to go from A-B. I’m not saying all highways should be replaced by HSR, but it’s humorous when people talk about how “expensive” HSR is but say nothing of the epic funds we put into road maintenance, the time wasted on congested commutes nationally, the money dedicated to furthering the automobile as the only means of travel in the country, etc.

    This issued came up a few times when Obama first came into office and he designated $8b to formal study and development of high speed rail in the US. This while giving some $40b to failed auto companies, $180-some billion to AIG and god knows how many other direct and indirect billions in loans to every rakish bank and financial institution.

    At the time I was struck by how our policy is continuously to throw good money after bad. What would have made sense would be for us to adapt as a nation and invest in ourselves, rather than socializing the losses of private industry. The development of national high speed rail would have required initial and on-going jobs from the bluest blue to the whitest white collar, could have been public mixed with private ownership, would alleviate traffic congestion in the long-term once finished, reduce our dependency on access to oil, etc.

    There are already 10 or so corridors in the US that have been studied, mapped and judged to be good to go. They just need funding.

    1. Cruise ships, stadiums, and other crowded venues are also vulnerable. By that line of reasoning, nobody would congregate for fear of a terrorist attack. Europe and Japan have operated high-speed trains for decades with few incidents. The number and percentage of people who die in traffic accidents easily dwarves that of those who have perished in plane crashes and train wrecks, much less terrorist attacks.

Leave a Reply