Co-creator: U.S. must get back on the Maglev track

All aboard: The U.S. government needs to get behind a cost-efficient national Maglev transportation system, according to James Powell.

Our 20th century highways are failing us in the 21st century.

The American Society of Civil Engineers grades U.S. highways as D-minus, with a cost of $2 trillion just to repair our crumbling bridges and roads, not including money to meet the ever-increasing truck and car traffic, which causes more congestion and delays.

Our obsolete highway system doesn’t meet modern transport needs, and is killing us.

Forty-thousand persons die annually in car accidents, with millions seriously injured. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates 53,000 people die each year from vehicle pollution. A 2010 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study estimated annual economic losses – due to medical expenses, property damage, insurance and lost wages and productivity – were $835 billion.

Adding the health costs of vehicles pollution and total economic losses from highway accidents exceeds $1 trillion annually – more than our national defense budget.

Thirty years ago, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, foresaw the ever-worsening problem with the U.S. highway system. He wanted new transport technologies that would provide faster, safer and cheaper travel for people and trucks.

Upon learning of superconducting Maglev transport, Moynihan invited Gordon Danby and myself, the co-inventors of superconducting Maglev, to come to Washington and tell him about our new transport technology.

Electrically powered Maglev vehicles are magnetically levitated and propelled above a guideway at speeds of 300 miles-per-hour or more, with no frictional contact or noise. They are inherently very stable and safe, with no wheels, no engines, no emissions and no traffic jams.

Maglev can transport passengers, cars and heavy trucks, greatly reducing highway congestion. Per-mile cost is considerably less than highway, passenger rail or air travel.

Magnetic personalities: Maglev inventors Gordon Danby (left) and James Powell, back in the day.

Moynihan was very enthusiastic about Maglev. He visualized a national network of Maglev lines built along the rights-of-way of the Interstate Highway System. Quoting Moynihan’s 1989 essay in Scientific American, “This is the story of a contest almost no one is watching. At stake is preeminence in the production and sale of a revolutionary new mode of transportation. It is called Magnetic Levitation – Maglev for short. It will define the coming century much as the railroad defined the last one, and the automobile and airplane have defined this one.”

The senator also noted that “other countries had been quick to pick up on Powell and Danby’s idea,” citing examples of successful Maglev developments in Japan, Germany and elsewhere, backed by billions in government investments.

“By comparison,” Moynihan wrote, “the U.S. government spent $3 million on Maglev between 1966 and 1975; after that, nothing.”

In 1992, Moynihan’s $750 million legislation to develop U.S. Maglev passed the Senate and went to the House of Representatives for approval. Sadly, the House Transportation Committee, due to opposition by vested auto and airplane interests, didn’t hold hearings on Moynihan’s legislation, and it died.

Had it passed the House, the United States would today have a 28,000-mile Maglev network built along our highways, able to transport passengers, cars and trucks. Three-fourths of the U.S. population would live within 15 miles of a Maglev station, able to travel to any other station in the Continental U.S. at 300 mph. Highway deaths and injuries would be much less, the economic losses much smaller, and vehicle pollution greatly reduced.

Japan is following Moynihan’s vision. Hundreds of thousands of passengers have traveled on Japan’s Yamanashi Maglev guideway at speeds up to 370 mph. Japan is building a 300-mile system from Tokyo to Osaka that will transport 100,000 passengers daily with a trip time of one hour. Japan has also recently proposed building a Maglev route in the United States, from Baltimore to Washington, later to evolve into a Maglev line between Boston and Washington.

Like all other transport technologies, superconducting Maglev is evolving with time. The Danby/Powell second-generation system has lower capital cost and can be erected on the rights-of-way along existing highways – and, uniquely, can use existing railroad stations, bridges and tunnels on trackage adapted to Maglev, without the need to purchase very expensive land in [developed] urban areas. Today’s high-speed rail typically requires major government subsidies, both for construction and operation.

The components for the second-generation Maglev system have been successfully tested. The next step is building and testing operable vehicles.

The United States needs to develop and implement new 21st century transport systems that will provide safer, faster, lower cost, and less-congested transportation, including Maglev, electric cars and self-driving vehicles.

The government must take a major role in this effort, to ensure that new technologies effectively interconnect to meet national needs. Leaving the development and implementation of new transport technologies to competing private companies risks ending up with a mix of inefficient, expensive non-connected systems.

Edited for length and content. Essay provided to Innovate LI by Long Island Metro Business Action. James Powell is the inventor, along with the late Gordon Danby of Wading River, of the Superconducting Maglev Transport System, which earned a 2000 Franklin Medal of Engineering from The Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. Powell, a retired tenured senior nuclear engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is a director of the MAGLEV 2000 of Florida Corp.