Levitating trains: Light-rail alternative, or magnetic money pit?

Virginia Beach city leaders bent on a mass-transit rail line are working with a Georgia company that still owes taxpayers $7 million for a failed train at ODU.

The company, AMT, wants to run a maglev line from Newtown Road to the Oceanfront, although the company president said he’s willing to scale back the scope of his proposal. AMT president Tony Morris says he and a Spanish construction firm can deliver a cross-city maglev system for a third of the billion-dollar price tag for a light-rail line. But despite his confidence, AMT has not installed the system anywhere outside its short test track in Georgia. And critics point out the company has a history of broken systems and broken promises that have cost taxpayers millions.

“It did not live up to what we hoped it would be,” Patricia Northey told NewsChannel 3. Northey was a councilmember in Volusia County, Florida, when Tony Morris proposed a maglev line and research project in Edgewater. The county gave the company $600,000.

“There was a big celebration here at this location,” she said. “People came out an cheered because the train moved a little bit down the tracks, and it just never went beyond that.”

Northey says the promise of jobs and factories 20 years ago never materialized.

“It just kind of faded away,” she said.

Northey took NewsChannel 3 to the site of the first maglev train in the nation. It’s now an overgrown graveyard of disjointed concrete tracks and Fiberglas panels. Northey said when the money ran out in Florida, the company set its sites on a project at Old Dominion University. There, company officials predicted students would zip around campus on a maglev line by 2002, and there would be a line from Hampton Roads to Washington by 2007.

More than $16 million went into the ODU maglev system — including a $7 million loan from Virginia — and the train never worked. Some of the steel track was sold as scrap.

Morris told NewsChannel 3 the ODU project was doomed by an engineering screw-up. He said because the train was supposed to float on a magnetic field, engineers didn’t think it would need a suspension system. Morris says by the time engineers realized it did, the money was gone and the project was dead. Morris and AMT retreated to Powder Springs, Georgia, to improve the system. He says a suspension system based on $80 airbags solved the problem.

He knows the high-profile failure at ODU spawned skeptics who say maglev won’t work.

“From our standpoint, we’ve spent $16 million and 10 years to get rid of that skepticism,” he says, “But we know it still exists in Hampton Roads.”

Morris and AMT submitted a proposal to Virginia Beach to install a maglev line across the city, where leaders once envisioned light rail. But Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne balked, in part because of the company’s debt to the state.

“If the system is viable, then they owe us the money,” Layne said by phone. “If it is not, then why are we talking to them?”

Morris said the terms of the loan called for a repayment once maglev started making money. He said if he builds a system in Virginia Beach, then he can return the money.

“This will be the first revenue-producing project in Virginia, and from this project, the $7 million will be repaid,” he said. “That’s always been part of the plan.”

But Layne’s distaste for maglev has Morris’ idea in jeopardy. The state is offering Virginia Beach more than $150 million to extend Norfolk’s light rail to the Beach’s Town Center. Layne made it clear maglev can’t be considered, although some in the city are hoping he will soften that stance. But Morris said he is focusing his energy on a line from Town Center to the Oceanfront.

To allay fears of another failure, Morris says AMT and Spanish construction partners Grupo ACS will build a starter line from the Oceanfront to Birdneck Road, and will privately fund the $65 million cost.

“Financially, there is no risk here,” he said. “The risk is that we screw up like we did at ODU and we have a problem we have to take care of.”

If it doesn’t work, he says the companies will pay to tear out the elevated tracks.

That sounds intriguing to Virginia Beach City Councilman Jim Wood. He says he won’t promise a dime of tax money to the project, but if the company is willing to do it for free, why not consider it? Others on City Council also say it could be worth a serious look.

NewsChannel 3 invited Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and City Manager Jim Spore to explain why they’re interested in working with a company with AMT’s track record. A city spokeswoman provided this: “Both the Jim and the Mayor are declining your request.”

5 comments

  • Joel Rubin

    ODU has a $16-million research facility thanks to Maglev and is not screaming for anyone to take it down. Why is this such an issue? The same track that was built there is now operating in Georgia, thanks to an $80 airbag that fixed the fluctuation problem. Is technology not allowed to advance or will we not consider it ever because of what happened over a decade ago?

    • Bootsnchaps

      Unfortunately this company has a history of failure with a glaring example on the ODU campus. If it was such an easy fix why didn’t AMT come back to ODU with the fix? No money? No income because of no projects? There are no comparable systems available in the US except the one in GA, unlike the light rail systems. My concern would be this project would start as “free” and unforeseen expenses would make it less “free”. That an unknown Spanish contractor, not a local contractor with a reviewable project list, would be doing the work is also of concern. I can see the possibility of an unfinished system once again through an area-Towne Center- with some of the worst traffic in the area. Perhaps if AMT can prove itself successful with its one project maybe it could be considered for connector routes in VB. Or maybe AMTcould look at a rail between Norfolk and Petersburg instead of the US 460 boondoggle. Meantime the VB Council should consider the light rail proposals and move forward with one.

  • Laurence E. Blow

    A reasonable person might wonder why AMT engineers overlooked the need for a secondary suspension in the first place, when the proven and better-known Japanese maglev design they were copying included an air spring for this important function. Given the many technical hurdles still remaining to be demonstrated, even after a decade has passed, who knows what the engineers will overlook next?

    But this is not really a technical situation. Everybody hates to feel that they’ve been duped, and the maglev experiences in Florida and Norfolk left people with lingering bad tastes in their mouths.

  • andanotherthing

    I am surprised that so many cities seem to overlook one possible solution. That’s the Alweg system. If you don’t know what this is then, perhaps, you know it better as the Disney Monorail system. Disney parks have been using this technology since it was first installed at Disneyland in California in 1959. It has been in use all those years with and almost perfect accident record. ((ONE death))

    This isn’t some amusement park ride and it is a proven technology. Let alone the fact that it does look good, is quiet, and would make the oceanfront and Virginia Beach quite a destination.

    I know that, when I have visited Disney, I have always gone out of may way to make sure I took a ride on it.

  • Adam Elmquist

    When will we wake up here in America, Europe and Asia have running Maglev systems and the one in Asia is going full speed with regular passenger service in Shanghai which is a German made system. At one time Steel Wheel on Steel Rail was an unproven technology too, if AMT says they got the bugs worked out why not have the US’s first operating Maglev system up and running for public transit. Once a few systems to actually be built and running then the technology won’t be unproven anymore. A handful of places in the US right now would make sense for the Maglev to be built and running, a light rail system would be too costly and takes up more land than a Maglev guideway supports. I’ve been hearing about a Maglev that would run along the Northeast Corridor high speed trains right can’t go all that fast on the corridor due to other transit and freight agencies sharing the line.

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