Tuesday, February 14, 2012

In Omnia Levitate

So I lie already and will add more on the news on the bankruptcy of Maglev Inc..  Extant or not Maglev should be fodder for talking about economic development policy in Pennsylvania for years to come.  So an alternative title for this post could, or should, have been... old Maglev's never die, they just fade away. 

It always amazes me the dichotomy of how much media attention is paid to things on the front end when there are press releases hyping potential no matter how unlikely with the subdued coverage at best when things finally pass into the afterlife of strange ideas.  No better example is the history of Maglev in Pittsburgh which has been a sop of money and news coverage for decades.   Consider that support for local Maglev continued even after, it may have even accelerated, after Transrapid, the German company that was the focus of the local effort itself decided to give up the ghost.  h/t to Jason T. for catching that nugget..  I myself tried to finagle a ride on the test track Transrapid had set up for years outside of Hanover.. Luckly I never pulled it off since not long afterwards an accident on the site resulted in 23 deaths.   You think someone might have gotten a clue long before now that this might not be the most promising technology?  But no.. in fact the dollars coming in just got bigger?

First question that really needs someone to dig into is how did Maglev continue to generate revenue in multi-million dollar chunks. Was there any real strategic plan here?  Any realistic assessment of what was ever really possible?  Then you have to ask yourself what did all that money produce in the end. The bankruptcy filing will answer that last question, but how it got money over and over again is worth digging into by someone.

and I know some folks hate Tom Murphy, but he remains to this day the only local politician who ever said no to any of the multiple maglev projects that have been floated over the years.  It was a position that did not earn him any political support, but actually generated for him a fair amount of grief in subsequent years in ways too long to get into here... but the short versionis that like all things Pittsburgh everything is connected.  There has been state money along the way, but it has been federal money that had really been feeding Maglev for years.  Support for Maglev projexts may have defined the very term earmark more than most any other project..  Is it the biggest local federal earmark over the years??  I wonder.

The costs go beyond the sheer dollars the project took in and spent along the way. Realize that any large public transit project like this had to involve the Port Authority.. and I am pretty sure the Port Authority folks had no love for any of this over the years.  Yet the same political processes that generated the money for maglev likely forced the Port Authority to devote preciously limited time and effort to support the effort along the way.. Think how it was just a couple years ago it seems that the Port Authority sponsored Environmental Impact Statement was soliciting comment from the public

So there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the whole saga that is Maglev in Pennsylvania... but it won't be a story really ever told as it just fades away.  Everyone (or virtually everyone) just went along with the idea with few critical questions ever raised.  Even when some doubted, the money kept coming.


Anonymous BrianTH said...

The technology in the sense of working as promised isn't the problem. The problem is that it isn't backwards compatible, which means it isn't attractive right now to places with large sunk costs in previous generations of passenger rail technology.

Interestingly if the United States wanted to commit to a technological leap forward using Maglev, it would face less of a sunk cost problem. In a nutshell that is what kept alive for so long the notion of doing a Maglev pilot project somewhere in the United States, and doing the prep work for such a project is what kept this entity going in Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately, we've basically abandoned that notion of a big leap forward in favor of an incremental approach to gradually upgrading our passenger rail system, which means the lack of backwards compatibility of Maglev is also a problem for us. But I don't think the idea was so obviously unsound a priori that it wasn't worth a few millions to explore.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 1:02:00 AM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

By the way, the Maglev train involved in the Lathen accident didn't spontaneously blow up, derail, or so on. It hit a maintenance vehicle that shouldn't have been on the tracks while the train was operating. The subsequent inquiries determined that happened because of a series of human errors, not because of some inherent flaw in Maglev.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 1:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Tube City Almanac said...

Thanks for the link!

As I noted here (http://www.tubecityonline.com/almanac/entry_1852.php), the flipside to the German story is that the Chinese recently announced a big investment into a maglev technology that they claim is cheaper than the German/U.S. technology.

Of course, the Chinese military-industrial complex being opaque to outsiders, it's hard to say whether the Chinese technology actually works as promised; and whether manufacturing it is actually economically viable, or just a busy-work project.

I wish all of the money and effort invested in maglev had been invested toward manufacturing something more realistic that would serve as interurban and intercity transit --- electric buses? High speed rail?

Instead, the U.S. continues to trudge along with (barely) a 19th century passenger rail system, and with most public transportation (outside of the Boston-Washington corridor) completely ineffective at connecting people with jobs.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous BrianTH said...

I think we spent a few tens of millions on exploring Maglev over the years. It is going to take billions a year to do even a slow, incremental approach to developing steel-wheel HSR. So the diversion of resources wasn't really significant in that sense.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 5:20:00 PM  

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