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America’s fastest train moves ahead

After 20 years of planning, America's fastest train moves forward — thanks to a $45 million infusion from a transportation bill, signed by President Bush in early June.
The magnetic levitating train, or "maglev," can travel at up to 310 mph, and could compete with commercial airplanes, which cruise at about 550 mph.
The magnetic levitating train, or "maglev," can travel at up to 310 mph, and could compete with commercial airplanes, which cruise at about 550 mph.General Atomics

Could America’s fastest train whisk us away from $4-a-gallon gas guzzlers?

Thanks to a $45 million infusion from a transportation bill signed by President Bush in early June, there could someday be a magnetic levitating train, or “maglev,” soaring from Disneyland to Las Vegas at a maximum speed of 310 mph — 180 mph on average.

After the research phase is complete in about three years, the private partnership behind the effort, American Magline Group, comes to its biggest crossroads: obtaining $12 billion in funding for construction.

Neil Cummings, who heads AMG, said that he believes a California-Nevada maglev could run as soon as 2015.

“If we had the money tomorrow, we’d build it in five years,” he said.

What’s slowing down America’s fastest train, however, is the hefty cost of crafting the infrastructure — including the guideway — from scratch, because the fastest train can’t run on ordinary steel tracks. The $45 million from the federal government will only cover pre-construction obligations, including environmental testing in the Mojave Desert, where the line would be laid.

But as spiking gas prices and traffic pinch both nerves and wallets, and flight costs and delays hamper air travel, the maglev joins the list of alternatives to the nation’s transportation tribulations.

“With our gasoline prices and everything else going on, people and government are ready to make a commitment,” Cummings said. Until now, “we haven’t committed to high-speed trains in this country — at all.”

America’s fastest train could compete with air travel. Flying from Anaheim, Calif., to Vegas on a passenger jet cruising at about 550 mph can cost upward of $150, while a ticket for the same route on a maglev would cost $55, according to the American Magline Group.

Plus, the maglev doesn’t pollute. It’s energy efficient. And it's low-maintenance because the train levitates — thanks to magnets — avoiding wear-and-tear on the underlying “guideway.” That’s what propels the vehicle through a magnetic field established by the electrical grid. Upping the current accelerates the train. Lowering the current slows the train. And reversing the current stops or pushes the train backwards.

Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster, said the lure of Las Vegas might just be what it takes to turn a profit with the maglev. The world’s first maglev, a 19-mile line in Shanghai, China, doesn’t garner enough traffic to offset the initial investment. But there are plans to extend the route, with hopes of attracting enough riders to reach critical mass.

While the California-Nevada maglev has scored the most federal funding to date, two other lines, from Pittsburgh International Airport to downtown and from Baltimore to D.C., are also competing for federal dollars for construction.

The two East Coast lines make sense to many, and Cummings of the American Magline Group said the Disneyland-to-Vegas line is more than what critics have dismissed it as: a “gamblers’ express.”

While the Western line aims to relieve traffic on the congested Interstate 15 highway which leads to “Sin City,” the first two segments, which would connect Las Vegas to Primm, Nev., and Orange County to Ontario, Calif., could shoot commuters to work and back home, he said.

“It’s an exciting alternative if you want to live in the suburbs, outside the main city,” Cummings said.

Not everyone is convinced a Maglev is a good idea. The Federal Railway Administration argues transportation dollars should aid America’s current public transportation system. The railway administration, which asked for $100 million in funding from the federal government, only received $30 million under the recent transportation bill.

“It’s great to have a train that goes 200 mph from Disneyland to Las Vegas, but that money could improve things in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New York ... Seattle,” said FRA spokesman Steve Kulm.

In America, Amtrak ridership, although hitting “record” highs in recent years, has remained the same — 25 million a year — since the 1970s, said Kulm of the Federal Railway Administration. The question remains: Would enough Americans ride a levitating train to make it worthwhile?

“Nobody has designed a commercially viable maglev,” said Saffo. “It’s a potential future transportation form. The only question is, ‘How long does it stay in the future?’ ”