Virginia Maglev System Off to Shaky Start

BY Chris Lang and Willie D. Jones | Nov. 1, 2003 | IEEE Spectrum Magazine

The United States’ first ground transportation project featuring trains propelled by magnets is stuck in neutral. More than a year after it was supposed to begin ferrying passengers, the magnetic levitation, or maglev, line at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., is still being held up by budget problems and technical difficulties.

As reported here in October 2002 (p. 20), the train was to be up and running last fall. But that expectation was derailed when the partnership — comprising Lockheed Martin, American Maglev Technology of Florida Inc. (AMT), Dominion Power (a Virginia electric utility), and the state of Virginia — learned that US $2 million from the Federal Railroad Administration (Washington, D.C.) was held up by a delay in the passage of a transportation appropriations bill in the U.S. Congress. The funds, expected early last year, still haven’t materialized.

Meanwhile, technical problems sent the cost of the project far beyond original estimates: analysts say that it will require a $5 million grant from the federal government instead of the $2 million the partnership had been depending on. One reason is that during testing on a Lockheed Martin test track, engineers were unsatisfied with the performance of sensors on the train car that were supposed to smooth out the ride. The sensors, optical interferometry laser systems that measure the distance between the bottom of the train and the guideway that it runs on, help the train maintain a precise distance from the track as it floats along. The problem, as the engineers saw it, was that abnormalities in the guideway would automatically be translated to the car, causing riders to be jostled.

AMT president Tony Morris told IEEE Spectrum that his company, which has provided much of the technical expertise upon which the project is riding, has solved the sensor problem. He said the laser sensors have been replaced by force measurement sensors that keep the magnetic forces holding up the train constant, despite faults in the guideway and weight shifts from passengers moving around the train.

To help the project along, Old Dominion is creating a National Maglev Technology Development Center, which will have university professors and students working alongside industry experts.

When will Old Dominion students be able to hitch a maglev ride across campus? No one knows for sure, because the new sensors have yet to be tried out and the partnership needs the federal money to test them and to finish construction of station stops where passengers will board and disembark.