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Duke Cites Electromagnetic Concerns Along Light Rail Route

Light rail transit with Amtrak visualization of area near Durham Station Transportation Center.
Go Triangle

Duke University refused to sign a cooperative agreement on the Durham-Orange light rail plan last week. School officials said they were concerned the project could disrupt sensitive medical equipment along the planned route near Duke Hospital.

In its letter to Go Triangle, Duke officials specifically cited vibration and electromagnetic interference as key concerns. The proposed rail line would come close to medical and research facilities along Erwin Road.

James Tidwell is the director of operations at Field Management Services, an engineering firm that’s worked to mitigate electromagnetic interference, or EMI, on light rail projects across the world.

He said some sensitive instruments, such as electron microscopes, need very stable environments to function.

“There are certain classes of instrumentation that require atomic level stability,” he said. “So when you have things like a light rail, or large vehicular traffic, trucks, buses, things like that, and even in some facilities the elevator -any major ferrous object moving through the earth’s magnetic field- it has the potential to create a condition that could adversely affect the operation of that microscope.”

Tidwell, who is not involved in the Durham-Orange Light Rail project, said there are multiple options available to protect sensitive equipment, including re-routing the rail line, moving the instruments, on-site mitigation, and measures to reduce emissions along the route.

“All of these solutions and mitigation strategies have been deployed on several projects around the U.S. and in Canada, and [are] being done in Australia as well,” he said.

Duke Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Communications Michael Schoenfeld said the layout of facilities in the Erwin Road corridor presents challenges.

“There are, we understand, a number of light rail lines in front of research institutions, however, the configuration of Duke Hospital, the eye clinic, and other clinical and patient care activities and services on Erwin Road make it particularly susceptible to interference,” he said.

Go Triangle pledged to work with Duke to mitigate any EMI along the route, and said they would pay for any  neccessary changes. The transit authority had asked Duke to participate in mediation ahead of an April deadline to stay eligible for federal funding, but Duke rejected that request on Thursday.

Elizabeth Friend grew up in North Carolina listening to public radio in the backseat of the family station wagon. She has been reporting and producing at WUNC since 2016, covering everything from Army history to armadillos. She's also the co-founder of the beloved summer event series Audio Under The Stars. In her spare time she enjoys exploring the outside world with her family, dabbling in esoteric crafts, and cheese.
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