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Carol Park: Lessons from Asia for the Northeast Maglev

Carol Park

Carol Park

In China, a bullet train crash in the city of Wenzhou in 2011 killed 40 people. The crash was blamed on poor design and mismanagement.

In Taiwan, the bullet train system rang up $1.5 billion in losses over seven years, requiring a $1 billion government bailout.

In South Korea, a high speed rail line connecting Seoul to Incheon closed in 2018 after just four years of service because 77 percent of seats were unoccupied.

Across the Pacific Ocean, supporters of “Maglev” in the United States are gearing up to create an American version of the Asian rail disasters.

The Northeast Maglev is a proposed magnetic levitation train that would travel at 311 miles per hour, carrying passengers between Baltimore city and Washington in 15 minutes. The Maglev team hopes to start construction on the ostensibly private project in 2020.

Maglev enthusiasts have been pushing the project despite warnings of significant risks, just like the supporters of the bullet train did in Asia.

For instance, the South Korean government built the Seoul-Incheon line despite consistent warnings of inadequate demand. The project was politically, rather than commercially, driven: Korean officials wanted to present a futuristic version of Korea to the international community as part of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Maglev supporters in Maryland have similar non-business motives for backing the project. Baltimore has been experiencing a steady population decline over the years, and many supporters believe that connecting the city to economically vibrant D.C. could reverse that trend. This vision has blinded the advocates to serious concerns about the project.

First, though the project purports to be a private effort, high-speed train projects are generally magnets of questionable government subsidies. “We can’t build our infrastructure 100 percent privately,” said Wayne Rogers, the CEO of Northeast Maglev. Building the Maglev line from Baltimore to D.C. is estimated to cost between $12 billion to $15 billion. So far only $5 billion in private investment has been secured for the project, so taxpayers will be on the hook to finance the rest of the project.

Second, it’s highly doubtful the Maglev will fail to attract sufficient ridership to make it economically viable. According to Maglev officials, the service would target the “elite business travelers” and charge higher prices than Amtrak, which already provides regular rail service between the two cities. Just as with the Seoul-Incheon line, there are also numerous bus companies that provide affordable trips along the Baltimore-D.C. route.

Finally, building the Northeast Maglev will inevitably disrupt the communities along the line because of noise and electromagnetic fields, not to mention the hurtling trains. As the Maglev will only make three stops, the affected residents are unlikely to experience any commercial or economic development in their neighborhood.

Supporters of Maglev dismiss these concerns. They argue that the success of bullet trains in Japan demonstrate that these hurdles can be overcome.

That’s exactly what officials in China, Taiwan and South Korea thought, only to discover that the situation in Japan is unique. Most of Japan’s 128 million inhabitants live in a few densely populated cities. Many of those residents are rich enough to afford expensive train tickets.

Compared to Japan, the situation is the polar opposite in Baltimore, where many of the residents who depend on public transit are low-income workers. If these residents are to commute between Baltimore and D.C., they would need an option that is affordable and easily accessible from their homes. Maglev is neither.

The Northeast Maglev project should be scrapped before it is too late. There are many transportation priorities that are more worthy of attention.

In early 2018, Baltimore’s Metro subway line closed for a month. According to the American Public Transportation Association, the closure was due to the Maryland Transit Administration’s lack of expertise and poor communication. Meanwhile, the D.C. Metro system is a never-ending series of service disruptions, crumbling infrastructure and safety failures.

If Maryland wants to improve its transportation system, it should focus on ensuring that its existing projects are safe and managed properly. Whether this is done by restructuring the MTA or by privatizing some of its operations to incentivize better performance, it will not take billions of dollars to ensure that Maryland residents have reliable public transportation.

According to Maglev’s Rogers, “Infrastructure is fundamentally a government responsibility, which has failed.” He is right. Many governments across the ocean have failed by partnering with private companies to build trains that turned out to be costly, dangerous, and reliant on government support. We can avoid recreating the same high-speed catastrophe in North America by abandoning the Northeast Maglev.

Carol Park is a senior policy analyst in the Center for Business and Economic Competitiveness at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. She can be reached at cpark@mdpolicy.org