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Maglev assets headed to auction

| Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012

Despite more than 20 years of planning and millions in public spending, a company's plan to run a high-speed rail line between Pittsburgh International Airport and Greensburg landed on the auction block.

An industrial auctioneer said Monday it will sell at public auction on March 6 the assets of bankrupt Maglev Inc., whose idea for magnetically levitated trains never got off the ground.

Auctioneer Harry Davis & Co. said Maglev's assets for public sale at its McKeesport plant include steel fabrication equipment, such as welders, band saws and air compressors.

"If high-speed maglev is going to work, you need long stretches of fairly flat land to get up to a high rate of speed. And you can't do that going up and down hills like you would in Western Pennsylvania," said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a think tank in Castle Shannon.

Backers of Maglev envisioned electromagnetically levitated passenger trains that would travel up to 300 miles per hour. It planned a $5.25 billion, 54-mile rail line with stops Downtown and in Monroeville.

High-speed maglev trains, in use in Japan and Europe, typically reach speeds of 240 mph. The "theoretical" top speed for a system proposed for California is 150 mph. Several U.S. cities -- including Washington and Miami -- considered building high-speed maglev lines in recent years.

"I don't think they were ever truly honest about the cost to do this," Haulk said. In addition to the tough terrain, he questioned the enormous cost of acquiring the necessary rights of way, sourcing the electricity the system would need, whether the rail line could access Downtown and other issues.

Maglev President Fred Gurney could not be reached for comment.

Maglev received nearly $23 million in federal money and $7 million in state tax dollars since the enterprise began in the early 1990s as a research and training facility. Another $28 million federal subsidy authorized in 2009 never materialized.

"Their existence depended on federal money from the beginning," said Don Smith, president of the Regional Industrial Development Corp., which leased Maglev a plant and office space and was owed $310,911 in back rent when Maglev filed for bankruptcy.

Maglev filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July, listing less than $50,000 in assets and liabilities of $1 million to $10 million.

Maglev once employed about 30 engineers and other technical workers but now has two or three people.

In addition to demonstrating cutting-edge mass transit, Maglev pitched its project as an engine for high-tech manufacturing jobs, said Donald Dunlevy, Pennsylvania legislative director of the United Transportation Union in Harrisburg, one of Maglev's eight institutional shareholders.

Maglev developed an automated welding system that could have reduced welding costs on bridge and highway jobs by about 20 percent, he said. But the company could not secure contracts for it.

"Everybody wants to do something to restore manufacturing jobs, and here's one, and yet nobody gets it," said Dunlevy, who personally invested $21,000 in Maglev because of its job-creating potential.

Maglev technology uses super magnets to float a train above a cushion of air at speeds of up to 300 mph, allowing it to glide without the friction of wheels on rails. Over several decades, countries built prototypes. In the United States, lack of government support and concern about costs and expansion of conventional train tracks largely prevented the technology from flourishing.

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