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Progress on ODU maglev still bumpy

(The following article by Debbie Messina was posted on the Virginian-Pilot website on April 15.)

NORFOLK, Va. -- A year after receiving a $2 million federal grant to fix an experimental maglev train on campus, Old Dominion University and its partners have not yet achieved the "magic carpet ride" promised by its inventor.

While some progress has been made toward smoothing bumps and vibrations, more work is needed to produce a working prototype, said Jeremiah F. Creedon , ODU’s director of transportation research.

With about $250,000 remaining on the grant, ODU is seeking to extend its one-year contract with the Federal Railroad Administration through September .

The delays and dwindling cash mean there is no chance of meeting the contract’s stated goal – levitating and propelling the vehicle across the elevated guideway at 40 mph for 1,100 feet – before the money runs out.

Now, Creedon hopes to move the magnetically levitated train about 200 feet "at some reduced speed" by September .

He said the setbacks are disappointing but added, "We’re hopeful the new controls will work."

ODU’s main partners are American Maglev Technology Inc. and Lockheed Martin .

Tony Morris , president and chief executive officer of Georgia-based American Maglev, would not comment. Morris, who is the inventor and owner of the train, has promised to remove the elevated concrete guideway that spans the campus if the project fails.

Arnold Kupferman , manager of the maglev program for the Federal Railroad Administration, said his agency is working to grant the extension.

"It’s not unexpected," he said, adding that delays and setbacks are characteristic of research and development projects.

"By its very nature, you cannot guarantee the results," Kupferman said. "You’re not buying an established technology that you expect to run as advertised."

Hyped as the nation’s first passenger-carrying maglev when announced in 1999 , the project met its lofty goals early on. Private investors anted up $7 million , the state loaned another $7 million , a Florida test facility was opened, and a 3,200-foot -long elevated guideway was built in 37 days . The project was on track for a 2002 debut.

Then, problems set in. The train levitated and moved, but it bumped and rattled instead of floating on a cushion of air. Money was quickly consumed trying to find a fix. Contractors were not paid and eventually sued American Maglev for nearly $800,000 . The train sat idle on campus for two years awaiting an infusion of cash.

"This is more of a research effort than some believed at the beginning," Creedon said.

Once the federal money came through last April , the original goal of creating a working campus transportation system was scaled down to producing a demonstration project that would require millions more dollars to get it ready to carry passengers.

ODU assumed the management of the project and involved the university’s engineering professors and students in finding solutions. Models and simulations were devised. Laboratory test beds were established at ODU.

As ODU worked with American Maglev and Lockheed Martin, the computer control system was changed to try to fix the vibrations.

Creedon said the new controls worked when the vehicle was levitated over a solid column. When it was moved to a section of track between columns, the vehicle still maintained stable levitation, but the guideway vibrated.

Once again, scientists are making adjustments.

A preliminary run was " promising enough that we want to try it again," Creedon said. "To make it work in a manner with an acceptable ride quality, it may require a secondary suspension system" – kind of like shock absorbers in a car.

Creedon said major modifications to the guideway are not being considered because the money is nearly depleted and, more importantly, more changes would increase the cost of building the maglev system.

"We don’t want to lose sight of the ultimate goal: coming up with an economically viable maglev," he said.

The only passenger-carrying maglev in the world, a high-speed train in China, cost billions to develop and $1 billion more to build. Morris’ vision is for an affordable system that costs less than $20 million a mile.

"We need it to work at a price that communities are willing to pay for them," Creedon said. "That leads us to make some choices, and it doesn’t make the job easier."

Friday, April 15, 2005

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