When attendees to the 21st annual Maglev conference arrive at Inchon Airport in Korea this week, they'll be whisked downtown on a brand new train that glides effortlessly on a field of magnetic energy — a transport system that for decades has promised a cheaper, faster and better way to move people around.
Maglev is short for magnetic levitation — a technology whereby trains are propelled by motors on a monorail, and permanent magnets levitate the train cars an inch above the rail. No rubber or steel friction means less wear and tear, easier braking and less energy use.
Korean transit officials believe maglev trains do have a future and government and industry are investing in these sleek, aerodynamic vehicles. But here in the United States, even the hardiest maglev enthusiasts are a bit glum right now as grand schemes for super-speedy trains connecting cities have been put on hold so long that some have given up.
"The attendance from people outside Korea will be puny," said Lawrence Blow, an independent consultant and former maglev developer based in Northern Virginia. "But there are glimmers of hope."
Blow and others are looking to Korea, China and Japan to stimulate maglev development. Shanghai already operates at maglev airport shuttle, while Japan is planning to add to its high-speed rail system with a superconducting maglev train connecting Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka by 2027.
At the same time, efforts in the United States have run off the tracks.
Despite billions of dollars in federal stimulus projects set aside for high-speed rail back in 2009, proposals to build maglev lines were bypassed because they weren't "shovel-ready," according to federal rules, and hadn't acquired necessary environmental and engineering permits, according to Blow, who worked with a German maglev manufacturing company until 2005.
Over the past decades, separate groups have lobbied for maglev corridors from Washington to Baltimore; Los Angeles to Ontario; Anaheim to Las Vegas; and Atlanta to Chattanooga. So far, none has progressed passed the planning stage.
Some regional maglev groups have even stopped meeting.
"It's a pipe dream in the short term," said Richard Thornton, co-founder and chief technology officer at the MagneMotion, a Devens, Mass.-based firm.
"In the early days it was perceived as successor to high-speed rail. The problem in the U.S. is that we have good air travel and highways. There's no motivation. That's where we shifted to urban."
Thornton has given up on high-speed maglev trains and instead wants to focus on "urban maglev," building the short-haul shuttles like those in Inchon and Shanghai.
MagneMotion has a demonstration track at its Devens headquarters and is working with Old Dominion University in Hampton, Va., to build a second test track that will open in early 2012. Thornton is also working with transit officials in New York on a proposal to build a 42nd Street maglev rail line, rather than a conventional electric light-rail system.
General Atomics, a defense contractor that manufacturers the Predator drone, is working with California University of Pennsylvania on a maglev demonstrator project, according to GA's transportation director Sam Gurol. It would connect several stations around the campus, located southwest of Pittsburgh.
The company has pledged a $10 million and is waiting to hear about a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to get the project rolling. This time, Gurol said, the permits are in place and the shovels are ready.
Gurol said if help is not forthcoming from Washington, it may be the end of the line for maglev in the United States. A planned cargo maglev line for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach was recently canceled after officials went with electric trucks instead.
General Atomics will not continue promoting maglev if there isn't more support, Gurol said. "Other countries are moving ahead, but in the U.S., industry is quickly losing interest because they are not interested in developing a new technology."