After decades of research and development, a sustainable transit revolution is underway—in Asia.

The International Railway Journal reported on April 4th that a new automated 18.6-kilometer-long urban maglev railroad system has gone into operation in Changsha, China to connect this city of 5 million to its airport. This follows a February 3rd IRJ article that announced Incheon International Airport outside Seoul, South Korea has begun passenger operations of a 6.1-km-long automated maglev line. Both systems’ technologies are homegrown and follow two other maglev systems deployed over a decade earlier in Japan and China, which still are going strong.

To launch the 2005 World Expo in Nagoya, the Japanese built a 9-km-long, 9-station urban maglev called the Linimo. The system efficiently transported more than 10 million riders in its first three months of service. After 11 years of service, the 100-km-per-hour Linimo has maintained a 99.97% on-time availability, thanks to reliable all-weather capability, low-maintenance maglev suspension and propulsion, and computer-controlled operations. All of these urban maglev systems run at the relatively low speeds of around 100 to 110 km per hour.

However, the oldest maglev now in service is the Shanghai high-speed (500-km/h-capable) 31-km-long airport connector. It covers 31 km, or 19 miles, in 7.5 minutes. It began daily passenger operations in April of 2004. This $1.2-billion line—a cost which included 15 vehicles, switches, two stations, a maintenance facility, and interest on the debt—was originally conceived as an initial operating segment to connect Shanghai’s two large commercial airports, but the second stage was put on hold while Shanghai expanded its conventional subway system. Recently, the subway system took over the maglev operations.

In addition to those four maglev lines just mentioned, two more maglev projects are under construction: the Beijing S-1 urban maglev line, and the Central Japan Railway’s 286-km high-speed Chuo Shinkansen line that will link downtown Nagoya to downtown Tokyo in only 40 minutes.

Advantages of Maglev Systems

What all these projects have in common is improved financial and operational sustainability. Their maintenance requirements are well below that required for traditional steel-wheel-on-steel-rail. Maglev propulsion is free from vehicle on track friction, so it avoids the financial burden of a “speed/maintenance penalty,” which increases with vehicle speed. This is not to say that a maglev system is maintenance-free, but the maintenance is less involved, less frequent, and takes less time, and therefore costs less than traditional rail.

Data from two different systems with over a decade of daily passenger operations proves maglev’s sustainability value. A huge factor is that guideway maintenance is practically non-existent, regardless of speed, representing a huge benefit to long-length transit or intercity lines.

So, why is it that no U.S. transit riders or operators are destined to benefit from this innovative technology any time soon?

Given how the D.C. Metro has become the poster child for dysfunctional U.S. mass transit, with a deferred maintenance backlog of an estimated $86 billion, one might be forgiven for thinking that new technology is desperately needed to replace our outdated transit systems.

At the very least, maglev technologies should be considered for new transit lines, especially in areas with difficult terrain or tough climates—but they aren’t. Instead, politicians get taken in by overblown claims of bus rapid transit’s (BRT) capabilities and supposed low costs.

BRT is labor intensive, not automated, has high operations and maintenance and life cycle costs, does not have the high capacity capability of rail-type systems, and has low average speeds. And, it is high average transit speeds that drive ridership. Otherwise, people will drive themselves.

In spite of some claims from so-called “experts” who say that maglev is “too expensive,” I would like to point out that those experts (many of whom think maglev is one technology) do not have access to proprietary cost information from overseas maglev manufacturers. Indeed, every maglev engineer I know points out that the price of any project is site specific, which shoots a hole in the “too expensive” claims—a point borne out in 2013 by an Advanced Guideway System project I worked on in Colorado. Maglev and its infrastructure were clearly determined to be the least expensive transportation option.

Politics in U.S. Transportation Infrastructure

The main reason transit systems in the U.S. are inferior is because politics, and not technical reasoning, dictates transportation project selection, planning, design, construction and technology selection. There is no permanent U.S. transportation policy, agency or funding mechanism that encourages advancements in transit technology—much less its deployment.

After 15 years of advocating maglev technology, meeting with the Federal Transit Administration and state DOTs, as well as countless discussions with numerous engineering professionals, I have figured out that ill-informed politicians are only partly to blame for sub-par transit. Politicians ultimately rely on technical advisors from engineering firms for advice on transit projects, what they will cost and the construction timelines. Never does the use of advanced technology to lower life cycle costs enter into the conversation. Instead, extreme risk aversion lies behind decision-making, or else we would have better transit.

The first leg of the Metro Silver Line in the Washington, D.C. suburbs came in at $5.6 billion, a higher price than I estimated in 2004 for the complete line using high-speed maglev—including vehicles. I was appalled by the outdated and costly in-situ concrete construction techniques I saw used on the Silver Line out to Reston, Va. The methods used in Germany, Japan, and China are not only more cost effective, but faster. The use of pre-fab beams manufactured in a climate-controlled building ensures stronger and longer lasting concrete, enables a shorter construction timeline, and uses far less material than what was poured into the entire length of the Silver Line right-of-way. It makes me wonder, who are the people advising government officials on project construction costs and suitable transit technologies? Do they even use transit?

Maybe it is time to invite some experts from overseas to recommend new solutions to improve our national mobility. Let’s invite them to bid on innovative transit projects so we can finally start delivering quality, efficient and sustainable 21st century transit to U.S. cities.

Kevin C. Coates is a Washington, D.C. based advanced transportation consultant with expertise in magnetic levitation (maglev) transport technology. His website www.coatesconsult.comhosts current information on maglev transport and its construction. He is writing a book on advanced mobility.