Mass Transit Floats Toward the Future
While closed to the public, American Maglev's Powder Springs test track shows the potential to ride just off the rails.
Powder Springs has its own mass transit. It runs on magnets and operates on roughly 60 percent less energy than traditional rail systems such as MARTA but isn't open to the public.
Since 2007, Marietta-based American Maglev Technologies has conducted trials on a test track nestled in the trees near the intersection of Oglesby and Thornton roads.
The project has attracted transportation officials and investors from around the world.
On the approximately 2,000 feet of elevated rail, the train can reach speeds near 40 mph. When the test track is completed, top speeds of more than 100 mph are expected along a stretch parallel to Thornton Road.
Reinventing Mass Transit
In many ways, American Maglev hopes to reinvent the landscape of mass transit. The 50,000-pound train compartment, one of several in the overall train design, is the first passenger-carrying, magnetically levitated vehicle in North America.
The force required to levitate the train is equivalent to roughly "17 good hair dryers," project manager Andy Wissing said; 24 computer-controlled electromagnets keep the passenger compartment suspended on either side of the rail.
Once in the air, the train encounters minimal friction, allowing a single person to set it in motion with a strong push.
At 65 feet long and 11 feet wide, each train compartment is slightly larger than Atlanta's MARTA trains and can handle up to 225 passengers.
"We've worked hard to cut down on operating costs," President and CEO Tony Morris said.
American Maglev's control system was designed to be automated with no need for an in-train conductor. The driver accounts for roughly 53 percent of operating costs for mass transit, Wissing said, so American Maglev's model can operate at a fraction of the expense of traditional systems.
The absence of contact between the train and rail also reduces the maintenance required, further reducing long-term operating costs.
"Someone has to be in the control room at all time," Morris said.
At the Powder Springs location, two people control the train: an on-board operator tapping instructions on a laptop plugged into the train and another manning the control room at the station.
Two industrial-sized linear induction motors propel the train along the track with about 14,000 pounds of thrust each.
"When we stop, we just turn the motors on reverse, and we can recapture 53 percent of the vehicles kinetic energy," Wissing said.
Mass transit isn't American Maglev's only foray into creative engineering. The test site is also home to an experimental Navy project about which the company declined to comment.
American Maglev's website explains more about the electromagnets.
Georgia Tech alumni and at least one professor launched American Maglev in 1994. Support from the local government helped build the first test track in Edgewater, FL, south of Daytona.
By 2000, the company was awarded its first project on the campus of Old Dominion University in Virginia in connection with the university's research department. Complications, including 9/11, brought the company's role in the project to a standstill.
After a third round of investor funding, American Maglev constructed the Powder Springs test track in 2006. Wissing has overseen the Powder Springs project since Day One.
Powder Springs offered the needed space and proximity both to the company's Marietta headquarters and to the homes of team members.
"No trespassing" and "no dumping" signs litter the gravel road leading to the track. Near the end is a gate dangling with lock and key.
While American Maglev has accommodated a variety of passengers, including kids with parents trying to keep them interested in engineering, Morris stressed that the test track is not open to the public.
"We don't have the insurance for all sorts of people" to ride the train regularly, he said.
Removed from the traditional urban setting of many transit systems, a ride on American Maglev's train is a smooth, quiet glide through the treetops.
After a little more than 15 years and $16 million in funding, the company is simply searching for the right city, investor or initiative to levitate the project into the public eye and a big-city atmosphere.