Let’s time travel:
Philadelphia, circa 2030. It’s a Saturday morning and your daughter has a 1 pm ballet class…in Manhattan. She makes the 12:29 Maglev out of the Rendell Aerial Train station—the RAT, for short—which used to (boringly) be called 30th Street Station. Now it’s home to Maglev high-speed trains that magnetically levitate 6 to 8 inches off the ground and travel at 317 miles per hour. In 25 minutes, your kid’s train touches down at what was once Penn Station, now called the Cuomo Aerial Train station, or the CAT. She makes it to her lesson with plenty of time to spare.
Her class ends at 3, which puts her back at your door by about 3:45. That gives you time to straighten up inside your multi-million dollar Northern Liberties condo; once she’s home, the two of you \ go check out some of the vibrant art spaces in Philly’s most up-and-coming—and gentrifying—neighborhood, Strawberry Mansion, which new arrivals have taken to calling The Strawb. There’s so much to do in the city nowadays, and so many people doing it, ever since the Maglev Revolution. The real estate market has boomed, sending development into once far-flung pockets of the city; new firms have relocated here from New York and Washington D.C., which is all of 30 minutes away now, growing the local economy and shoring up once failing public schools.
You love living in the Philadelphia that high-speed rail has wrought, even if, on your packed weekday commute to your gig as a graphic artist in Brooklyn, there’s a part of you that chafes at just how much of a bedroom community of New York your city has become.
Sound far-fetched? I’m not so sure it has to be. There’s a lot that has to happen to make my little flight of fancy even approach reality, perhaps the most pressing of which is that we need a national commitment that rejects incrementalism in favor of some big thinking. Like, really big. Like Daniel Burnham big, for the famed urban planner who once said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Truly, don’t the times call for something transformative, some magic to stir our blood?
“We are a country that used to do big things,” says former Governor Ed Rendell, who has been championing what amounts to a nationwide infrastructure Marshall Plan, and who evangelizes for how high-speed rail can grow the Northeast Corridor into an economic behemoth. “Abraham Lincoln built the transatlantic railroad in the middle of the Civil War. Sixty years ago, Dwight Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System.”
Elon Musk’s cryptic tweet that he’d received “verbal approval” for a Northeast Corridor hyperloop, the underground 700 mile-per-hour pod that he envisions whisking between New York and Washington in 29 minutes, took Congressman Brendan Boyle off-guard. Representatives of Musk will be briefing Boyle in D.C. when Congress is back in session.
Five years ago, Amtrak seemed to be thinking big, releasing a $150 billion high-speed proposal that would have taken us from Philly to New York in 37 minutes at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour; Philly to Washington would take all of 50 minutes. Alas, despite the initial fanfare, the plan ended up on a bureaucratic shelf somewhere. Recently, however, the specter of high-speed infrastructure innovations that would transform the Northeast Corridor have found their way back into the news.
Elon Musk’s cryptic tweet that he’d received “verbal approval” for a Northeast Corridor hyperloop, the underground 700 mile-per-hour pod that he envisions whisking between New York and Washington in 29 minutes, raised a lot of eyebrows. And last month the Federal Railroad Administration released its vision for the future of the Northeast Corridor, recommending a series of rail improvements, like straightening low-speed curves and some speed boosts, that would cut the Acela time to New York to 50 minutes. (Strangely, the cost of this middle-of-the-road option is only $20 billion less than the more ambitious 2012 plan).
So let’s examine the various options, and consider the effects. What would all this mean for Philly? What would it mean for America? Could it be the national project we need to get our Mojo back?
“That’s the really exciting part of this,” says Congressman Brendan Boyle, who has spent the last two years immersed in high-speed research to the point that his wife and staffers occasionally beg him to stop geeking out on train data. “It’s the right thing to do for the Northeast Corridor—which is projected to have 40 percent population growth by 2050—and from a national economic perspective. But for a Philly guy, it’s really cool because we benefit from high-speed infrastructure more than any other city anywhere.”
In fact, after Musk’s much-ridiculed tweet, (is there even such a thing as “verbal approval”?), Boyle, caught off-guard, scrambled for the phone. “When we’re back in session in September, I’ve got representatives from Musk’s SpaceX coming to D.C. to brief me,” he says. As he sees it, Musk’s hyperloop plan is as extreme as Amtrak’s preferred tweaks are underwhelming. That’s why he’s become a proponent of the aforementioned Maglev, which is bold but, unlike Musk’s hyperloop, it’s a groundbreaking technology already in use.
The Central Japan Railway Company owns the Maglev technology and Rendell, along with other boldfaced political names like former New York Governor George Pataki and former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, all sit on the board of The Northeast Maglev, the American company formed in 2010 to bring the technology to the States. It takes 90 seconds for a Maglev train to reach 90 miles per hour, at which point it magnetically levitates 6 to 8 inches off its rubber wheels and reaches 317 mph in the next 90 seconds. It currently operates along the 47-mile stretch between Tokyo and Kyoto.
When Rendell rode that route two years ago, he decided we need Maglev technology here. “When we were at 317 miles per hour, George Pataki, who is 6’5”, stood up and grabbed a pad and pencil and wrote a note to Joe Boardman, the head of Amtrak, about this unbelievable experience,” Rendell recalls. “And his hand didn’t slip at all. On the Acela, on the rare occasion it gets up to 160 miles per hour, not only can’t you write a note, you take your life into your hands just walking to the bathroom.”
The Japanese government is essentially making the technology available for use in the States at no charge and is behind a $5 billion loan at low interest to help build a Baltimore to Washington “first leg”; construction is slated to start in January and be completed by 2020. The idea, ultimately, is a public/private partnership that will extend the Maglev throughout the Northeast. “When the first leg is built, people will come to Baltimore just to ride it as a tourist attraction,” predicts Rendell, noting that, in Japan, there’s a six-month waiting list to get on the Tokyo to Kyoto train.
“We’re a country that used to do big things,” says Rendell, who thinks if he can get the high-speed Maglev technology in front of the President, he’ll go for it.
So let’s say something like my 2030 fantasy comes to pass, whether through Maglev technology, Musk’s hyperloop, or a bold high-speed Amtrak plan. What would the economic impact be? A study of the effects of high-speed rail in Europe done by the London School of Economics and Hamburg University finds that towns connected to a new high-speed line saw their GDP rise by at least 2.7 percent compared to towns not on the route, and that each 1 percent increase in market access results in a .25 percent rise in a city’s GDP. That augers well for high-speed rail in the States, which will effectively link every major Northeast city and create a type of economic mega-region.
As it stands now, the Northeast Corridor generates 20 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, and is home to 50 million citizens packed into an area covering something like 2 percent of the country. Seven years ago, a University of Pennsylvania School of Design report entitled Making High-Speed Rail Work in the Northeast Megaregion found that “High-speed rail improves connectivity between businesses, facilitating the movement of labor and goods resulting in a new economic geography—one that may be particularly valuable for the knowledge industries that will benefit from agglomeration economies. This new geography will result in economic growth in the corridor’s major cities, making the Northeast Corridor more competitive in the global market.”
Of course, those are only the direct benefits. Rendell, Boyle and other high-speed cheerleaders point to a bevy of ancillary advantages, ranging from the environment (getting some of those cars off the parking lot that is I-95) to a boom in commercial and residential real estate, as more and more Philadelphians commute to New York and Washington, and more and more firms from those cities relocate here to take advantage of our comparatively cheaper housing and lower cost of living.
And there are some even bigger potential effects:
One of the things you hear from both our vibrant startup community and other bold-face name business leaders is that local economic growth has long been held back due to a lack of investment capital. High-speed rail very well could connect our established and future businesses, social impact hubs and nonprofits to Wall Street and foundation investment in ways not yet seen.
Alas, lest you think I’m pollyanish, there are naysayers to all this dreaming—and they do have a point. Drexel Professor Richardson Dilworth worries about the unintended consequences of high-speed rail or hyperloop travel.
“It will only exacerbate the economic and political divide between urban and rural America,” he writes in an email. “If it drastically cuts commuting times between major cities it means we will basically have one giant geographically dispersed national city that is more economically vibrant, but the costs of joining that city will be higher because of the increased costs for transportation. I sort of imagine a dystopian future where we have fortified hyperloop tracks between cities that have been largely covered over to protect from climate change, with the rest of the country a desolate desert of poor nomads who have been excluded from the cities. A bit fantastical I realize, but maybe a more moderate version would not be so unrealistic in the long term.”
Boyle, though, says that technological advance only exacerbates the have and have-not divide if we let it. The Interstate Highway System brought the nation together; if managed correctly by our political stewards—granted, no easy feat these days—why can’t high-speed rail? “If this has the economic impact we think it does,” Boyle says, “I can imagine a hefty portion of the revenue it brings in going to places that need investment, like the Philadelphia schools. Last time I checked, the schools needed new investment.”
Boyle speaks about our high-speed rail needs with a sense of urgency. “It’s embarrassing that, in the year 2017, so much of Europe has high-speed rail and we don’t even have one mile of it,” he says.
It takes 90 seconds for a Maglev train to reach 90 miles per hour, at which point it magnetically levitates 6 to 8 inches off its rubber wheels and reaches 317 mph in the next 90 seconds. There is currently a 6 month waiting list to ride it along the 47-mile stretch between Tokyo and Kyoto.
To Professor Richard G. Little, that very argument is part of the problem. “I always hear, ‘Well, China has high-speed rail,’ as a justification for it here,” says the former Director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California. “Well, China also has a billion and a quarter people, and they didn’t have 150 years of a legacy system to deal with, either. We haven’t had a conversation about what the demand is relative to the cost.”
Most high-speed rail skeptics aren’t as highfalutin as Dilworth; their critiques, like Professor Little’s, tend to begin and end by focusing on the exorbitant cost. Hell, when it fits their own self-interest, even the US High-Speed Rail Association cites the expense side of the ledger, poo-poohing the Maglev by alleging that its technology is 5 times more expensive per mile than earthbound high-speed rail.
Which gets us to the bigger-picture conundrum in the high-speed rail debate. As long as number-crunching engineers drive the discussion, we’ll get incrementalism, like Amtrak’s preferred tweaks that will only decrease the time it takes to go from Philly to New York by about 21 minutes. The numbers-crunchers aren’t wrong, necessarily; it’s just that they’ve never had the market cornered on vision. There are some things that require bold leaps of faith beyond the typical cost/benefit analyses.
That’s what Henry Ford was talking about when he said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Ford instinctively knew what the computer scientist Alan Kay would later put into words, that “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Rendell would point out that Lincoln didn’t pause during the Civil War to have a bunch of pencil pushers crunch the railroad numbers; instead, he saw it as a crucial national project in a time of extreme crisis. Nor did Eisenhower, contemplating the Interstate Highway system, study the effects of something that didn’t even exist yet in the States. Instead, it was his experience on the high-speed roads of Germany during World War II that convinced him if we build it, commerce will come.
Sound familiar? It’s essentially the argument Governor Jerry Brown has made in California. Yes, the specter of high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco has gone through varying ups and downs, but Brown has steadfastly championed the idea as akin to this generation’s Moonshot, as in this video, titled “Wimps Didn’t Build California.”:
Like you, no doubt, I’m aghast at the wreck that is our current President. But even Rendell, who fervently opposes Trump, recognizes that the Narcissist-in-Chief presents an opportunity. Rendell would like to see the federal government make the same commitment as the Japanese—$5 billion—to the Maglev first leg between Baltimore and Washington and, more broadly, he’d like to see Trump live up to his campaign rhetoric and embrace an ambitious infrastructure overhaul.
“Trump wants to do big things,” Rendell says. He’s even reached out to David Urban, Arlen Specter’s longtime chief of staff and Trump administration insider: “If I can get this in front of the President, I think he’ll go for it.”
Boyle served in the House with Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and recently told his former colleague, “I disagree with the President on a lot of things, but if you guys are looking for a Democrat to work with on infrastructure, I’m right here.” The response? “Radio silence,” Boyle says.
We started by imagining the future, so let’s close by reimagining the not-so-distant past. What if Trump, rather than opening with an ill-fated push to decimate the health care system, had included in his dystopian inaugural address (of which former President George W. Bush was reported to say: “That was some weird shit”) a unifying call for an infrastructure Marshall Plan, with high-speed rail at its center. What if he had painted the picture of a future in which we’re all connected, and all prospering together? That would have been leadership.
I’m not holding my breath. But dreamers like Rendell and Boyle are soldiering on, convinced that it’s not too late. I’m with the dreamers. What other choice do we have?Header: Maglev train outside Shanghai, via Wikimedia