Fishhawk's Brain
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(This essay originally ran in AltDaily)

As government operatives, media types and ideologues continue to machinate over whether and how to extend light rail to Virginia Beach, I feel compelled to stand up and speak out in defense of emerging technology.
 
ODUmaglevODU Maglev - courtesy of AMTA proposal has been made by American Maglev Technologies (AMT) - the same company behind ODU's maglev experiment several years ago - to build a maglev train line as the proposed light rail system in Virginia Beach, at no cost to taxpayers.
 
The subsequent arguments against it sound like I would guess every argument against "newfangled" technology has sounded throughout history, and somewhat illustrative of why innovation is having a much more profound effect on improving people's lives in parts of the world other than our own - particularly in terms of transportation.
 
I should say that, although it's an intriguing offer, this particular project is probably not the right circumstance under which to pilot a maglev line. In fact, although I'm no big fan of conventional ground-level light rail, if V.B. chooses to run a rail transit line to the Oceanfront, it should probably be the same system as Norfolk's since the easement is (mostly) already there, and it would obviously be easier to sell to the establishment.
 
But one of the major criticisms of light rail in V.B. is that there's no mass transit system to feed into the main line. This maglev system has some huge possibilities in terms of serving that purpose. Imagine elevated single-rail type trains running down Pacific Ave., Great Neck Rd., Lynnhaven Rd., Independence Blvd., etc., feeding into the main light rail line.
 
VBRRLawrence Jackson | The Virginian-Pilot Because such a system runs above grade, the tracks could be built within existing highway easements, with the trains running above vehicular traffic. Environmental impact is minimal - much less than conventional light rail.
 
So, let's talk about the technology. Magnetic levitation and propulsion is not experimental. The maglev train in Shanghai is the fastest, cleanest and quietest train in the world. Period.
 
Maglev propulsion works by using rapidly alternating magnetic fields to push a vehicle down a straight-line track (picture a radial electric motor laid flat). It's Physics 101.
 
The maglev system employed in China uses a "smart track/dumb car" configuration, meaning the propulsion system is contained in the track, while the train cars are themselves unpowered, and are pushed down the track by the alternating magnetic field in the track affecting magnets in the train cars.
 
The biggest drawback to this approach is the per-mile cost. Although the cars themselves are relatively cheap, every single foot of the track has to contain the magnetic field generators and the electrical infrastructure to power them.
 
American Maglev Technologies has reversed this approach. They've been trying to develop a system that uses a "smart train/dumb track" configuration, which if successful, promises to drastically lower the per-mile cost of maglev systems. The magnetic field generators are in the train, which obviously makes the vehicle more expensive, but the track is little more that an elevated I-beam - meaning it's much less costly to install.
 
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They've doggedly spent many years working on this system with very little outside capital. I was extremely excited when ODU adopted this project several years ago, and wrote this column back in 2006 in support, but they subsequently demonstrated little dedication to it, and it finally died.
 
Several people who have negatively commented on American Maglev, the ODU part of the project, or the technology itself, are completely off base. They point out the $16 mil spent on the ODU part of the project as if - in the scheme of things - this is a lot of money. But that amount would pay for less than half a mile of our conventional light rail system.
 
It's ridiculous to imply this amount of money somehow should have resulted in a working system. A couple of people have even hinted that maybe AMT was trying to pull some sort of scam. That's just downright offensive. Their behavior and performance were nothing but honorable.
 
If American Maglev has managed to work out the bugs (and it got great reviews from city officials who checked it out recently on AMT's test track), then they're on the verge of a major transportation technology breakthrough by anyone's standards, and to just dismiss AMT's proposal because it uses something unfamiliar is regressive and ignorant. Why wouldn't we want to be leaders in embracing and showcasing innovation, instead of followers?
 
I offer this cautionary tale: In 1963, a company called Alweg approached the City of Los Angeles and offered to install a monorail mass transit system through the metro area at no cost to the city. Even though monorails were well established (the oldest still in operation is in Germany, and has been in continuous operation since 1901) They were turned down - mostly because L.A. wasn't interested in any mass transit at the time.
 
SeattleMonorailThe Seattle MonorailHowever, Alweg had also approached the City of Seattle a couple of years earlier and made a similar, though less expansive offer. Leaders in Seattle thought a monorail would be a cool feature for their upcoming "Century 21 Exposition" and agreed to the proposal with the caveat that the company would remove the system after three years.
 
The monorail succeeded beyond all expectations. It carried much higher numbers than originally expected, Alweg recouped their investment in two years, and after three years, the city decided to buy the system rather than having it dismantled. The original Alweg Monorail has been in continuous operation since, using the same cars, and is considered a centerpiece of Seattle urban life.
 
Whether or not light rail should be extended to the beach is a different discussion. But no matter how that debate turns out, I'd like to see us take a step forward as a region by supporting up-and-coming technological innovation - like maglev.
 
My personal recommendation (for what it's worth) would be for the City of Virginia Beach to make a counter-offer to AMT to build such a starter line down the length of Pacific Ave. It would serve a reasonably-sized and concentrated population - not to mention the tourist trade - and would in and of itself be a sellable attraction. It could be built (with a little wiggling) within the existing thoroughfare's footprint, causing minimal disruption.
 
If AMT was willing to do this at their risk and expense, which would benefit them by providing a viable working model to showcase their system to other potential clients, wouldn't this be the very definition of a win-win scenario?