Version of Europe’s high-speed Maglev could be built in Western Pennsylvania

By Christian Niedan

Pitt students, faculty and staff members fill Oakland in the morning, waiting for buses or… Pitt students, faculty and staff members fill Oakland in the morning, waiting for buses or shuttles, searching for parking spaces or trudging to class on foot.

There’s not a “whoosh” in Oakland.

But at one university in Southwestern Pennsylvania, school officials hope students will be able to hop on a convenient, elevated, magnetically propelled train system. With frequently scheduled stops, the system would let students commute from one end of campus to the other in a couple of minutes.

Unfortunately for Pitt students, this system is going up at California University of Pennsylvania, and not at Pitt -at least, not yet.

Urban Maglev is a train-like system, where cars ride in near silence, inches above a raised guideway, or track. Cars travel on waves of magnetic energy.

Unlike its faster (300 MPH), heavier (120 tons), and much more expensive technological cousin High-Speed Maglev, which was created in Germany in the 1980s. Urban Maglev technology was conceived and built entirely in the United States in the last decade.

“Comparing the two technologies would be like comparing a taxi cab to an airplane,” Urban Maglev Group Marketing Strategist Stan O’Loughlin said. “One goes 50 miles per hour and is optimum for short urban distances. The other goes 300 miles per hour and is meant for much longer distances.”

U.S. Congressman, and Pitt Alumnus, Jack Murtha, D-12th district, has championed Southwestern Pennsylvania’s involvement with Urban Maglev.

Murtha led the political effort to secure federal funding for local Urban Maglev development and construction, recently submitting a request for $5 million from next year’s budget to use toward completing the $188 million dollar California University demonstration system. Murtha said Urban Maglev would aid transportation and help the local economy by easing commutes and creating 300 to 400 high-paying manufacturing jobs building Maglev parts.

General Atomics, in San Diego, Calif., created the modified system, which would be constructed through a joint venture by a number of local companies, including Hall Industries Inc., in Butler County, Union Switch ‘ Signal Inc., PJ Dick Inc. and Sargent Electric Company.

Supporters of the technology are counting on a few other financial advantages to sell it to cities like Pittsburgh. Operating the system entirely above city streets, on a raised track, would sidestep expensive insurance costs that light rail systems, traveling at the same level as city street traffic, have to pay, since the elevated track lowers the risk of hitting pedestrians.

Light rail and other current train technologies produce a lot of sound and air pollution, and because of federal environmental regulations pertaining to noise abatement and safety issues, at least half the train routes often must be built underground.

Building and extending these systems becomes extremely expensive – tunneling costs as much as three times the amount as building at street level, or grade. Urban Maglev, which is completely above grade, would not bring such high costs.

Proponents of the system also argue that Urban Maglev could pay for itself with low operating costs. They believe it would complement, not compete with, existing city bus routes by relieving congestion without taking tax dollars away from the already strained bus budget.

Led by local developer U.S. Maglev Development Corp., whose vice-president is former Pitt football great Paul Martha, The Urban Maglev group of companies are making their way through a long-term, four-stage plan that they hope will lead to the eventual construction of the technology in cities. The first two stages, now complete, involved research and development. Supporters also tested the system in controlled conditions at a General Atomics test track in San Diego, Calif.

Getting the system at California University up and running would complete the third stage – demonstration. With the challenging incline grades and inclement weather of the Southwestern Pennsylvania region, Urban Maglev proponents hope not only to demonstrate the physical capabilities of the technology, but also to show the positive socio-economic effects of the system on local residents, urban planners and possible worldwide applicants.

“It’s a two-for-one deal,” O’Loughlin said. “We get to demonstrate the technology, and help an up-and-coming university solve its transportation and safety problems.”

If the Urban Maglev trial is successful, future Pitt students might be able to take a ride on a system like it from one end of Oakland to the other – and make that class on time after all.