Don't Derail Maglev Development

MAGLEV transport, with magnetically levitated vehicles whizzing along without wheel-on-rail friction, is a futuristic technology whose time has come. Much of it was invented in the United States. But Germany and Japan are preparing to bring it to market.

It seems ironic that the world's first passenger-carrying maglev system will be built at Orlando, Fla., using German equipment. Sharpening the irony, this $600 million, 14-mile system will enjoy a $97 million federal subsidy - even while the Bush administration wants to postpone the program to begin development of a US maglev prototype.

This evokes a sense of deja vu for American maglev researchers. They were making substantial progress two decades ago. But they had to bow out when the federal government pulled its support.

Congress voted to revive the American effort last year by authorizing a five-year prototype-development program. Some of the earlier research engineers joined with others to form consortia to explore different concepts. But the Bush administration dropped the program's $45 million first-year funding from its proposed fiscal 1993 budget.

The administration says it doesn't want to kill the program. It only wants to delay funding until it completes its own maglev assessment. But the new research consortia don't have enough funds of their own to wait out a delay. They will probably disband if they don't get the promised support. This could torpedo the program.

It's hard to foretell how important maglev will become in the 21st century. It is not just a fast - several hundred miles an hour - railroad. It differs from trains, which are linked systems pulled or pushed by locomotives; the entire train has to stop at each destination on-route.

With maglev, individual cars are propelled magnetically. Theoretically, they could be individually directed to different destinations. Maglev proponents suggest that, since maglev guideways can run along existing highways, you might be able to pick up 300-mph transport at your local shopping mall.

It will take a lot of engineering development to demonstrate the feasibility of this dream. Even if maglev doesn't live up to all of its boosters' expectations, it could still have a substantial future. The US will miss a possibly major economic opportunity if it sits on the sidelines while other nations develop maglev's potential.

At this point, the House of Representatives seems inclined to go along with the administration in deleting the maglev funding. The Senate should correct this shortsightedness and encourage the House and the administration to think again.

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