A magnetic levitation (maglev) train developed by Central Japan Railway Co.
Photograph by Kiyoshi Ota — Bloomberg via Getty Images

It could whisk commuters from Baltimore and D.C. in 15 minutes.

By David Z. Morris
November 17, 2015

Earlier this month, Maryland was awarded $27.8 million by the Federal Railroad Administration to study the feasibility of a magnetically levitated train line between Baltimore and Washington D.C. It’s a small step forward for a huge project that could have big implications both regionally and for potential partners in Japan.

Maryland governor Larry Hogan said a maglev line, which could whisk commuters from Baltimore and D.C. in 15 minutes on trains running over 300 miles per hour, would be “transformative,” bringing lots of jobs, lots of spending, and the subtler economic benefits of a better transit network. It is also the proposed first leg of a route that would run the length of the northeast corridor.

The grant is strictly for research and planning. The cost for actually building the Baltimore-D.C. line has been pegged at over $10 billion. A line all the way to New York could run into the hundreds of billions.

There’s little prospect of federal funding on that scale, so the private group The Northeast Maglev has been working for several years to raise private investment. That has proven challenging, and is likely to get even tougher as bond markets tighten, so the FRA’s help represents a small but needed boost.

Arguably the stakes in all of this are much higher for the Japanese than for Marylanders. The Northeast Maglev is a partner of Japanese maglev developer JR Central and the proposal has so far been oriented towards using Japanese technology.

JR Central is currently building a maglev line between Osaka and Tokyo. It will be massively expensive, and, as impressive as the technology may be, both domestic and international critics have skewered the project as a likely boondoggle.

Those critics could be silenced if Japanese maglev technology could be sold internationally. The Baltimore-D.C. line has been targeted as a showcase for enticing other global buyers. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has pushed hard for the project, which is being treated as something of a loss leader. JR Central has offered to provide its technology free, and Japan’s publicly-owned international investment bank, the JBIC, has previously committed $5 billion in financing.

Those efforts are symbolic of something much larger. Abe has emphasized spending as a strategy for recovery in Japan, whose long-ailing economy just went into recession for the fifth time in seven years. Though maglev research and the Chuo Shinkansen are largely self-funded projects of the private JR Central, exporting the technology would mark a badly needed win for the idea of big spending, and for Japanese technology more generally.

There is competition, should maglev dollars materialize. While JR Central’s technology is perhaps the world’s most advanced, it is also the most expensive, and other, more affordable (if slower) systems have been developed in Germany and the United States.

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