Many Americans have long nursed a pipe dream of one day riding a super-high-speed train just like the engineering marvels that have cropped up in Japan, China, and Europe. With a newly publicized offer from Japan, that dream is inching closer to reality — but only for a privileged few.
The New York Times reported Monday that Japan, desperate to export its magnetic-levitation (maglev) technology, has offered to pay for 40 miles of a 300-mile per hour maglev train from Washington, DC to Baltimore, a route that would conveniently give lawmakers an eight-minute trip to the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. A mix of public and private funds raised by The Northeast Maglev company (TNEM) would be used to build the rest of the route to New York. If lawmakers bite, residents of the Northeast Corridor could someday zip between Washington and New York in an hour flat.
A ripple of excitement has spread through elite circles in Washington and New York. TNEM is assembling a lobbying force of former lawmakers and businessmen to prod Congress to sign on to the deal in the name of innovation. Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tellingly tailored his pitch to the financial sector, extolling the maglev’s virtues at the New York Stock Exchange in September.
Dangling the prospect of an hour-long commute in front of politicians, Wall Street moguls, and journalists who regularly travel between DC and New York is a smart strategy. TNEM is hoping to coax an exemption from Congress’ hostility to even the most modest infrastructure spending. But this vision of an American maglev train would be a massive investment that would primarily benefit the so-called Washington elite while sucking funds from the rest of the country’s rail system.
Should the privately-owned maglev succeed, it would sap Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Northeast Corridor, the agency’s major source of revenue for maintaining the rest of the country’s less populated but still indispensable routes. Without the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak would never be able to maintain even the barebones service it currently offers across the Midwest, the West, and the South. TNEM chairman Wayne Rogers made clear to Politico that the company does not plan to collaborate with Amtrak, but compete. “Right now, this is a privately led venture,” Rogers said. “If we looked at it like airlines, I don’t think that, you know, JetBlue would be saying United Airlines has a seat at their table.”
This competition idea echoes a persistent Republican plan to privatize the profitable Northeast Corridor while still requiring Amtrak to provide long-distance service to the rest of the country — a formula that would force the agency to implode. But even TNEM admits that private investments will fall short if the maglev is to become a real possibility. “A large amount of [funding] is going to have to come from the federal government,” Rogers told Politico.
That means the maglev will compete for federal funding with the less shiny but still vitally important spiderweb of Amtrak lines stretching across the rest of the country. The meager federal funding for long-distance train routes is already on the chopping block, threatening to leave many rural Americans without any mass transit options at all.
Conventional wisdom assumes mass transit is only for urbanites, while small town America clings to their cars. But attitudes are changing quickly. Amtrak ridership all over the country is growing steadily, and research suggests that the more regular service a route offers, the more passengers it attracts. If the DC-New York maglev were to become the poster child for infrastructure investment at the expense of slower routes, rural America’s options — and their fledgling interest in train travel — could disappear. The maglev would only confirm suspicions that mass transit investment redistributes taxpayer dollars to toys for city-dwellers, a bias that has helped turn public transportation into a hotly contested partisan issue. Without broadening train use all over the country, mass transit innovation won’t be a priority for most Americans.
True, the Northeast Corridor is one of the most densely populated regions in the country, making it a worthwhile and lucrative area for innovation. In fact, Amtrak is already planning to buy new Acela bullet trains and increase average speeds from 150 mph to 220 mph. The maglev plan favors intensely concentrated speed for a fraction of Americans, without offering a viable plan to expand to desperately under-served areas.
We’ve also already begun and stalled on a far more inclusive high-speed rail project thirsty for funding. President Obama envisioned a high-speed rail system that would connect the whole country, and dedicated $8 billion in the 2009 stimulus bill to start building the network. This 17,000 mile rail system would not be quite as lightning-fast as a maglev train, but would link the rest of the country at or above speeds already enjoyed by Northeast Corridor Acela riders. But after Republicans took over Congress in 2010, funding disappeared, construction on new bullet train routes halted, and the high-speed national network dream has moldered.
Some state associations and private companies in California and the Midwest are still slowly chugging along, but a high speed national network won’t get back on track without long-term federal funding and political support. That won’t happen if we keep pretending people who live in Washington and New York are the only people who ride the train.