Saturday, April 17, 2004

Maglev project ready to roll again at ODU
By Debbie Messina and Bill Burke

NORFOLK — Work on Old Dominion University’s stalled experimental maglev train should soon be back on track now that lawsuits against its builder and the university have been settled and a $2 million federal grant needed to fix technical problems has been approved.

Scientists and engineers will resume the task of trying to fix vibrations that have plagued the controversial magnetic levitation project, which has cost $14 million in public and private money and was to have begun ferrying students across campus in September 2002.

The bullet-nosed vehicle sits idle, perched atop an elevated guideway, because money to fix the glitches ran out.

Contractors who were not paid for their work on the system’s passenger stations sued for a total of nearly $800,000 last fall. A settlement agreement to pay that debt calls for the non profit ODU Research Foundation to provide $200,000 and the university to spend $185,600. A portion of the money goes to the Georgia-based company that built the train and its guideway, American Maglev Technology Inc., once work resumes.

The creditors will be paid out of an escrow account established with the new funding.

ODU will be reimbursed for the $185,600 by the Federal Railroad Administration, said an official for that agency.

The ODU Board of Visitors has insisted that no university money be spent on the project, whose technology remains unproven.

American Maglev’s president, Tony Morris, promised that the technological problems will be corrected within six months after work resumes, and the train will levitate and move smoothly along its guideway.

The project has been plagued by a series of setbacks and has become the subject of growing criticism since its much-ballyhooed debut was delayed 19 months ago.

Although Congress approved the $2 million grant for the project more than a year ago, the money was held up by the railroad agency while ODU and American Maglev dealt with the lawsuits and figured out exactly how the new money would be spent.

The railroad agency issued a stop-work order in November after the lawsuits were filed.

The agency this week agreed to release the $2 million grant following the settlement of the lawsuits, said John Harding, chief maglev scientist for the railroad agency.

“We wanted to make sure our money was not going into settling those debts … and that we have a reasonable expectation something useful would come out of this,” Harding said from Washington this week. “We expect to find out what’s wrong with the system and have a fix for it. That’s a hope, that’s not a guarantee.”

Members of the ODU Board of Visitors said they were pleased that the long-dormant project was moving forward again and voiced hope that it would succeed. “I’m pleased with this agreement,” said Ross A. Mugler, secretary of the board, who in December had expressed displeasure about the way ODU had overseen the contract with American Maglev.

“If it’s successful, it will be a great opportunity for the university to advance its research,” Mugler said. “It would be big for ODU, big for Hampton Roads. We’d all like to see it work.”

Mary C. Haddad, the board’s vice rector, said the university “is the perfect venue for this project. It has the potential to revolutionize transportation in Hampton Roads, the country and the world. “We learn from our errors in science and technology,” Haddad said. “This is a perfectly good investment for ODU.” But several maglev experts have raised questions about whether the technology American Maglev uses will work at all.

Phyllis Wilkins, executive director of a federally funded high-speed maglev project in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area, said the system Morris has developed “may be ready for baby steps, but is not even close to commercial application.”

ODU Board of Visitors member William M. Lechler also has voiced skepticism. “It sounded like it was going to be a difficult process,” he said in December. “They really had to have a breakthrough in technology.”

Morris has insisted that breakthrough will happen once the $2 million federal grant money flows.

Under the terms of the grant, ODU staff and faculty will take a greater role in managing the project funds and finding the fix.

Until now, American Maglev managed both the funding and the technical development of the project. The new arrangement calls for ODU to take the primary role in decisions about spending and development.

“We’re on the hook with the federal government to deliver this project,” said Robert L. Ash, ODU interim vice president for research.

The equipment ODU will buy from American Maglev includes motors, magnets and electrical components used at a Florida track where the ODU train was developed and tested.

The university also will acquire a test car, called a “bogie,” also once used at the Edgewater, Fla., facility.

The equipment will be used for research as part of a maglev deployment center ODU plans to create.

Under the terms of ODU’s agreements with American Maglev, the university has not paid anything for the project, but rather American Maglev will gift it to ODU once it proves successful. If it fails to work, American Maglev has signed an agreement to pay to remove the one-kilometer guideway and train from the campus.

ODU, however, has spent about $12,000 on safety certification. The university is poised to spend more money to clean up the incomplete passenger station sites, now in disrepair, to make them safe to resume work, said Robert L, Fenning, ODU’s vice president of administration and finance.

Half of the $14 million spent on the project so far was a loan from the state’s Commonwealth Transportation Board. The other half was private contributions from partners, including Lockheed Martin Corp. and Dominion Virginia Power.

The $2 million in federal money will be spent in the next year to refine the technology with the goal of creating a “demonstrable engineering prototype.”

Various checkpoints will be used to evaluate the progress over the next year. By the year’s end, however, it will not be ready to transport students. ODU and its partners would need more money to complete that step.

If the train still does not work, ODU must decide whether to seek other sources of funds, convert it to an alternative transportation system, or instruct American Maglev to remove it.

Reach Debbie Messina at 446-2588 or Reach Bill Burke at 446-2589 or

© 2004

The maglev train on its raised track.
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