- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

NORFOLK (AP) — Old Dominion University plans to spend $2 million to get the nation’s first magnetic-levitation train back on track.

The federal money is intended to jump-start the stalled project, but it’s not enough to get the train and stations ready for public use. That preparation would require about $5 million more, ODU officials said, an amount that they’re lobbying Congress to provide.

The $2 million, however, should be enough to fix the problems with the train and get it running smoothly at 40 mph as a demonstration project, said Robert L. Fenning, ODU’s vice president for administration and finance.

The magnetic-levitation project — maglev for short — came to a halt last fall when development problems ate up the train’s $14 million budget.

For nearly a year, the blue-and-white vehicle has stood idle on an elevated track next to the college’s tennis courts. Maglev uses electromagnets to make the vehicle float about a half-inch above an elevated track.

To carry students, the project needs about $5 million more to complete the three stations along the 3,200-foot guideway, make modifications to the track and vehicle, and conduct lengthy testing to certify its safety for public use.

“We’re moving as briskly toward our ultimate goal as we can,” said Robert L. Ash, ODU’s interim vice president for research. “We can’t ignore our commitment to our students and faculty.”

ODU, which previously served only as host for the American Maglev project, now has involved its engineering faculty in finding solutions and will open a Maglev Technology Development Center on campus to advance the technology.

“It’s all heading in the right direction. It’s just going a little more deliberately than we had hoped,” Mr. Ash said.

American Maglev Technology Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp. and ODU, partners in the project, have developed new computer controls and sensors that they say should offer a smoother ride than the bumpy test runs.

“We need to get it to a place where it’s commercially viable,” Mr. Ash said. “We need to get the system to operate with the speed and ride quality that would make this an attractive transportation option.”

ODU’s train is not the only maglev project to hit snags. The opening of a $1 billion German-built high-speed, 19-mile maglev system in Shanghai has been delayed until next year because of technical issues. The problems prompted China to cancel a planned 800-mile maglev train between Shanghai and Beijing, the Times of London reported.

Germany and Japan have pumped billions of dollars into maglev testing but have yet to open a commercial system.

Still, with its projected $20 million-per-mile price tag, Tony Morris, American Maglev’s president and chief executive officer, envisions maglev as an affordable answer to congestion. The company is being considered for other rail projects around the world, including one in Karachi, Pakistan.

With the infusion of the federal money, the ODU-American Maglev project’s budget is up to $16 million — still a modest amount, experts said.

“What’s been done is pretty commendable for the amount of funds available to do it with,” said Thomas Alberts, an ODU aerospace engineering professor working on maglev. “There was never enough money to bring it to the point of a transportation system that could bring students around campus.”

The maglev had been budgeted three years ago at $16 million, which included a $2 million federal appropriation that didn’t materialize. Without the federal share, project leaders adjusted their sights and started work with $3.5 million from Lockheed Martin, $3.5 million from Dominion Virginia Power and a $7 million state loan.

When things went wrong in the train’s development, there was no cushion in the budget.

“It’s taken a lot longer, but it doesn’t mean what we’re doing is any less important,” Mr. Morris said.

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