A Conversation on the Future of Regional Rail: Better, faster service to power the economy

In ten years, our region’s rail systems could be transformed.

The Northeast Maglev train, running at 300 mph, could connect downtown DC to Baltimore, with plans to extend to New York City. You could get to BWI in 15 minutes and Manhattan in an hour.

Last year, Virginia approved a plan to invest billions of dollars toward commuter rail improvements. The Long Bridge across the Potomac will be refurbished and more dedicated track will extend down to Richmond. When completed, the system will have double the capacity and more off-peak service.

Eventually the Maryland and Virginia commuter rail systems could coordinate so that a commuter from Baltimore, MD could use one train to get to Woodbridge, VA. The region’s economy would be in hyper-drive, interlinked seamlessly through rail.

To learn more about the future regional rail plans, we welcomed FC2 Trustee Ian Rainey, who is Senior Vice President of the Northeast Maglev, and Jennifer Mitchell, who is Director of Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

The Maglev is different from the slower traditional high speed rail. It doesn’t run on tracks like the high speed systems now being developed in California and Florida. Maglev trains hover above a concrete guideway, propelled by superconducting magnets. The technology was actually first invented by the US federal government, but it was the Japanese who commercialized it.

The northeast region’s Maglev dream began with the Great Recession stimulus bill, which set aside money for a handful of high speed rail projects. The Northeast Maglev, the organization leading this effort, has pulled together about $50 million in federal grant money and about $100 million in private investment to do the front end planning work. Analyses has determined there is a realistic dedicated route straight enough to make it all the way to New York City. A long-awaited environmental impact study on the route to Baltimore will be published early next year.

Shovels could begin moving ground on that first leg within two years. Building just that portion will cost $10 billion. The Japanese government has already pledged to cover 50 percent of its financing with generous terms as an inducement to get the US government to foot the remaining 50 percent. Once the system is up and running, fares should be able to cover operating expenses.

DC’s Maglev station would be located near Mt. Vernon Triangle and New York Avenue right where six lines of Metro lines converge. Eventually there could be a direct below-ground walkway connecting Metro stations to the Maglev station. Union Station didn’t make sense for the Maglev because it would require a turn in the track that would slow down the train too much.

The Northeast Maglev hopes to avoid the pitfalls now slowing down high speed rail projects elsewhere. California, for example, compromised early in sharing tracks with conventional rail lines to get to city centers. That inevitably slows down trains. The Acela has the same problem. It’s like driving a Porsche in Beltway traffic. California is also building its first leg between Bakersfield and Merced, which has little traffic and does not excite the imagination.

The Virginia commuter rail system is trying to secure its own tracks. Part of its big $3.7 billion investment announced last year is going toward purchasing private freight rail CSX’s tracks and right-of-way. Once it owns the tracks, it can be in charge of its own destiny for other operating decisions like how frequently and reliably it can run trains. It will be easier for commuters to get from point A to point B reliably. Right now Amtrak considers “on time” to be within 15 to 20 minutes of stated arrival time. That’s not good enough for many business travelers. In Japan, customer service in another league. Its bullet trains move 150 million people a year and the average train delay is 30 seconds. There also hasn’t been a single high speed train accident or fatality in Japan since high speed trains started operating in 1964.

Better customer service will lead to more riders—and fewer cars on roads. In 2050, of the 170 million annual trips taken from DC to Baltimore, 24 million of those could be on the Northeast Maglev. That’s 24 million fewer car trips, less gas emissions and productivity time gained not sitting in traffic.

Building out more highways will not save money or decrease traffic. A VDOT study found that expanding I95 with an additional lane from the beltway south to Spotsylvania would cost $12 billion. And by the time it was completed in ten years, it would be just as congested as it is today.

Rail investments are cost-effective, and essential for expanding the commuter reach and economic potential of the region’s economy. Improvements in each system, whether Maglev, commuter rail or Metro, along with Union Station’s coming modernization, will make rail a more attractive mode. By 2040, the Virginia investments would be a regional game changer, leading to $6 billion a year in economic benefits—more than paying for itself. The outer suburbs would be better connected to jobs without having to slog through traffic.

The Maglev, because of its scale, will be an economic engine in its own right. Construction alone could create 90K jobs in the region and 200K nationally in sourcing the material and technology. Then there will be jobs in perpetuity operating the system, many of them highly skilled jobs to keep the advanced mechanics running smoothly.

COVID teleworking may be throwing the future of all commuting—and the prudence of huge rail investments—into doubt. But the long term growth potential remains. The region’s population and jobs will continue to expand. The prognosticators were wrong when they predicted air travel would never recover after 9/11. Rail will come careening back too.

You can watch a video of the event here.