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.
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.