January 23, 2021

"Getting There" - Northeast Maglev is Coming

 Imagine going from New York City to Washington DC in one hour… not by plane, but by maglev. 

By comparison, today the same trip from the LaGuardia to DC’s Reagan airport takes about 90 minutes by air (not counting getting to and from the airports) and costs $276 one way.  On Amtrak’s Acela the fastest run, downtown to downtown, is three hours and costs $157.  Or you could take the bus for $30, assuming you have 4 ½ hours to waste.

A maglev is a train, of sorts, that floats on a cushion of air, suspended and propelled along a special track quite different from conventional railroads.  The technology has been around for over a hundred years but there are few maglevs in operation so far.

One of the best known is in Shanghai. I’ve ridden it and was not impressed.  The ride was short, about 8 minutes over 17 miles, and only about 220 mph… no faster than China’s high speed conventional trains.

But the country that’s closest to opening a long distance commercial maglev is Japan where the private (and pre-COVID, very profitable) JR Central Railroad is building a maglev line for 177 miles from Tokyo to Nagoya, the Chuo Shinkansen.  That maglev will fly along the track up to 314 mph.

And it’s that Japanese technology that will be used by Northeast Maglev, the private American company developing the US system.  Like the Japanese system it will include a superconducting suspension and propulsion system, SCMaglev.  At those speeds it is certainly possible for the ‘trains’ to make the 230 mile journey in an hour, even with intermediate stops.

Planning by Northeast Maglev is already underway for the first part of the project, connecting Washington DC to Baltimore with 70% of the route underground, avoiding disruption above ground in the dense corridor.  The Washington DC terminal would be near the downtown Convention Center and the Baltimore station either near Camden Yards (downtown) or in the outskirts where interstates 95 and 695 connect.

Trains would offer service every 15 minutes including an underground stop at BWI Airport, just south of the city.  The fares, they say, would be competitive to Amtrak. That’s got to hurt Acela ridership.

Assuming the operation is successful, the line could continue north to Philadelphia, New York and maybe even Boston by way of Connecticut, though the routing through our state is anyone’s guess at this point.

With up to 50% of the $10 billion initial cost being covered by the government of Japan, Northeast Maglev’s biggest hurdle now is getting necessary approval of the 30 different state and Federal agencies with jurisdiction.  The environmental impact studies alone are into their fifth year.

Not to be outdone, Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is seeking permission to construct its first tunnel, a 10 mile section, eventually connecting DC to Baltimore.  But unlike the Japanese maglev, Hyperloop’s “maglev in a vacuum tube” is far from a proven technology.

The implications of a maglev (or Hyperloop) running at these kinds of speeds are astounding.  Shortening the travel time is like bringing the cities that are served closer together. 

You could live in New York and commute daily to a job in Washington DC faster than you can get from Fairfield to Grand Central Terminal.

If post-pandemic demand for travel returns, Northeast Maglev could be a game changer when it comes to inter-city travel.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


January 09, 2021

"Getting There" - Commuters Are Not Coming Back After COVID

 I have one prediction for the new year and you’re not going to like it.

After we all get vaccinated and things ‘return to normal’, regular weekday commuters on Metro-North will not be coming back as hoped.

Why should they?  Who wants to spend $400+ a month and waste 2+ hours each day, five days a week riding a train into New York City if you don’t have to?  This pandemic has shown us going to an office isn’t necessary to doing our jobs.

Sure, there are some people who have to show up in person to do their work (healthcare staffers, auto mechanics etc), but that’s never been the bulk of Metro-North’s ridership.  Most of those commuters work with their brains and can do so just as easily from home (or a satellite office in the ‘burbs) as in an office cubicle in midtown.

And their employers, having discovered this, are also finding they don’t need to waste millions on fancy real estate.  They are downsizing too.  So there may not be an office to go back to, even if you want to.

Oh, you may still need to show up “at work” one or two days a week for meetings in downsized, shared offices.  And while you may be longing to get back on the train and return to your job, that’s probably as much your cabin fever from being quarantined for months as any real desire to get back to the old grind.

Even pre-pandemic the railroad found that monthly pass holders weren’t commuting five days a week, maybe more like four days.  They had already found they could work without being at work.

One group that never stopped working was Metro-North employees. In the darkest days last spring, parent MTA saw more COVID-19 deaths among bus and train drivers than the city had among its cops and firefighters.  They all deserve our thanks.

Yes, train ridership has slowly climbed back from a low of 5% to 20% on weekdays (closer to 50% on weekends), but even with federal aid, current service levels are not sustainable.

Pre-COVID when the trains were standing-room-only and with Metro-North riders paying the highest ticket prices in the US, the railroad was still losing money:  about 20% of every ride was subsidized by taxpayers.

So if my predictions are correct and ridership doesn’t come soaring back, how is the railroad (or the state) going to handle deficits that quadruple or quintuple?  Something’s gotta give.

Sadly, I think we will see further service reductions, especially in off-peak hours.  That will mean layoffs of hundreds of dedicated (and yes, well paid) railroad conductors, engineers and maintenance staffers.  And yes, we may also see fare increases.  It will all add up to less (service) for more (cost).

It used to be that Connecticut’s tax base was tied to the availability of dependable train service:  people lived here because they could commute.  But if they don’t need to commute, how important is the train?  And what will happen to TOD (transit oriented development) when ‘getting there’ isn’t necessary to ‘getting it done’?

I don’t think the train is going away completely, nor is New York City.  We will still want to “go into town” for entertainment and to see the few friends we still have who’ll be living there.

But when COVID is gone, things will never just get back to the way they were.  Those days are gone.


Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media


In my college days I did some strange stuff… like driving all night from Chicago to NYC, hitting 75 mph on Interstate 80, just me and the tr...