- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

A transit system without wheels, rails or an engine isn't magic. It's magnetic. Maglev, or magnetic levitation, uses electromagnetic forces to propel train-style shuttles from point A to point B at speeds of up to 300 mph. The technology isn't new. Specialists say using electromagnetic energy in such a fashion dates, in crude form, to the 1950s.
In the United States, maglev remains a drawing-board dream, a promise to alleviate the traffic congestion and polluting emissions of modern traffic modes. Even countries aggressively pursuing maglev systems, such as Japan and Germany, have made just small steps toward achieving maglev's promise.
In spring, the Federal Rail Administration (FRA), which promotes improvements in U.S. transportation systems, will support one of two projected locations with funding of up to $950 million for a major maglev system.
The Baltimore-Washington Maglev Project seeks to link the two cities, along with Baltimore-Washington International Airport, along a 40-mile stretch. Future connections in the project could join Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Richmond, and Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C.
The second finalist, the Pennsylvania Project, would feature a 47-mile circuit connecting Pittsburgh International Airport to downtown Pittsburgh and the small neighboring cities of Monroeville and Greensburg. It, too, could be expanded to connect a large number of cities in both the Midwest and on the East Coast.
But maglev technology, no matter its potential, still has some bugs to be worked out. Last month, a short demonstration of a maglev system at Old Dominion University in Norfolk experienced a setback when a test ride proved too bumpy for the comfort of its passengers. The opening date for the experimental track has been pushed to next year while the system is analyzed.
Philip Tarnoff, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland, says Germany has operated a test maglev track for a decade. Even with that modest success, the country doesn't have any large-scale maglev systems operational yet. Mr. Tarnoff is part of a Maryland commission that is evaluating whether the state should consider a maglev system of its own.
Maglev's potent propulsion system and absence of friction make it appealing, but the high capital investment required remains a key obstacle, he says. The Baltimore-Washington system would cost up to $3.8 billion, while the Pittsburgh model carries a $3 billion price tag. The money would come from both private sources and federal funding.
A maglev system requires three components: a massive electrical power source, metal coils lining the track and large magnets on the train's underside. The trains are suspended, propelled and guided by magnetic fields created by the electrified coils. The coils run along fixed "guideways," which loosely can be compared to tracks, and repel the magnets affixed to the train's undercarriage. The shuttles hover at least 3/8 of an inch off the guideways.
Should power to the coils go out, backup batteries at the power source keep the trains afloat until the power system can be restored.
Because the trains never touch the ground, no energy or heat is lost because of friction. That lack of contact also reduces the amount of wear the vehicles experience over time and results in less noise than other land transportation modes. The chief noise generated during travel is the sound of the train slicing through the air.
The technology allows trains to climb grades of up to 10 percent, more than triple what existing rails can conquer.
Joseph Schetz, a professor with Virginia Tech's department of aerospace and ocean engineering, says the speed differential between maglev and existing rail technologies is substantial. The fastest rail system can only reach 200 mph, Mr. Schetz says.
Maglev makes a wise choice for long-distance trips in which such speeds greatly reduce the travel time, but, he says, it wouldn't be nearly as practical over short distances.
"It's like having a jet airplane for a 100-mile hop," he says.
Future maglev paths, he says, might run along existing interstate highways because the right-of-way designations for those roadways already are in place. However, the turns in those interstates are designed for cars going 60 mph, not 300 mph, he says, which means those pathways might not be usable.
Suhair Alkhatib, project manager with the Baltimore-Washington Maglev Project, says its research is based upon the German maglev model, dubbed the "transrapid" system.
Mr. Alkhatib has taken a ride aboard the German shuttle system.
"At 250 mph, you don't feel a thing," says Mr. Alkhatib, who describes the ride as comfortable and smooth, with no vibrations. "The only [speed] indication is the blur of the landscape in front of you. You can have a drink in your hand, and none of that drink will spill over."
The ride's only rough patch came during the initial 0-to-60 mph stretch. Once a reasonable speed is reached, the comfort level is impressive.
That said, a District-area maglev system is still years away from being built assuming the FRA selects it over the Pittsburgh model. The earliest such a system could begin construction would be 2006, Mr. Alkhatib says.
Maglev proponents say safety is one of the system's key selling points, according to Fred Gurney, president of Maglev Inc., a Pittsburgh group behind the Pennsylvania Project.
The bottom of the train wraps around the guideways, making derailments highly unlikely, Mr. Gurney says. The electromagnetic pulses propel the trains in one direction at a time, which would preclude having two trains hit head-on, and rear-end collisions are unlikely because all the trains would travel at the same rate as the magnetic pulse.
Land around the maglev tracks could be used, Mr. Alkhatib says, because under his project, about 96 percent of the tracks would be elevated. That would allow for productive use of the land below and also lessen the chance of objects getting on the tracks or intruders placing items there.
Mr. Gurney, whose group consists of industrial, labor and academic groups, says the average traveler may not grasp maglev's principals initially, particularly that the trains can accelerate and decelerate rapidly in a controlled, mostly quiet manner.
"At low speeds, it makes almost no noise at all," he says. "As you get higher in speeds, there is a loud whoosh, but it's much less than that of an 18-wheeler going over a bridge."
Maglev supporters had better be patient, he says. He predicts it could take up to 50 years for the country to have an established system of maglev-powered shuttles.
Mr. Alkhatib says a local maglev system could send travelers from the District to New York City in less than two hours, making it a viable alternative to air travel. The Baltimore-Washington maglev system would divert about 30,000 vehicles a day, he says.
"If we build one or two systems, people will jump on it. You really see the true benefits of the technology if you connect major cities," he says.

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