Magnetic-levitation train debuts in China
Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 1:03 a.m.
SHANGHAI, China - The sleek white train zipped noiselessly out of a futuristic station in Shanghai, carrying Chinese and German leaders - and hopes for a new era in railway technology.
The world's first commercial magnetic-levitation train performed flawlessly on its maiden journey Tuesday, hitting 260 mph between Shanghai's gleaming financial district and the 3-year-old Pudong airport. A German-built high-tech marvel, the train can outrun a World War II fighter plane by riding above its track suspended by powerful opposing magnets.
Its VIP passengers, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, said they hoped the 14-minute, 19-mile journey would build confidence in the expensive new technology.
"The completion of the Shanghai magnetic levitation train test project ... holds important meaning for the construction of a high-speed rail network in China," Zhu said in a speech after the ride.
The Shanghai train is being watched closely, as much for the speed and performance of its 21st century technology as for its jaw-dropping $1.2 billion cost - partly covered by German subsidies.
High construction costs of "maglev" trains have prevented them from finding customers elsewhere in the world, including Germany, where a proposed Berlin-Hamburg link was scuttled two years ago because of costs. Many in China fear Shanghai's high-speed airport shuttle will end up a white elephant, unable to recoup costs because airport users will shun its one-way ticket price of $6 - a hefty sum for most Chinese.
Such concerns were nowhere to be seen as Zhu and Schroeder boarded a maglev carriage - which looks like an aerodynamically curved subway train - after a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony at a newly completed station on the outskirts of Shanghai's gleaming Pudong financial district.
The train then shot silently away on a single, gray track raised several stories above ground.
Germany has poured decades of research and billions of dollars into the train. Maglev is the fastest rail system in the world, far outstripping conventional trains because it floats on air - held a fraction of an inch above its rail by powerful opposing magnets.
Germany was so keen to have a working version that it essentially offered the trains for free if China built the track. The maglev's German developers were also generous in handing over technology, which reportedly allowed them to beat out the only other maglev makers, the Japanese.
"These (German) companies are different from other competitors in China's market," Schroeder said after the ride. "They not only sell their products, but they are more willing to share their knowledge and experience."
Although China is in the midst of a five-year, $31 billion upgrade of its railway network, foreigners have so far had little success winning business. Premier Zhu, whom Schroeder thanked for personally overseeing the Shanghai construction, said he hoped maglev trains would be "quickly localized" - produced entirely in China.
The first batch of trains was delivered in August, and engineers from both countries have been rushing to get them ready for the New Year's Eve run. The efforts have been cloaked in secrecy, with test runs conducted at midnight to avoid attention.
Shanghai hopes the line will burnish its image as a global business and technology center. The train is supposed to start carrying regular passengers sometime late next year, but a date has not been announced.
China's central Ministry of Railways will be weighing Shanghai's experience carefully as it moves forward with plans for a 800-mile high-speed link between Shanghai and the capital, Beijing.
A maglev train could make the trip in three hours, fast enough to compete with air travel. But the ministry is reportedly balking at the estimated $25 billion price tag, favoring cheaper systems like a homegrown version of Japan's "bullet train," according to state-run media reports.
Experts said the maglev makes more sense as a link between closer cities, like a proposed line between Shanghai and Hangzhou, a city 120 miles away. This is also the most likely use overseas, where it has been considered in busy U.S. travel corridors like Boston to Philadelphia.
"There is still need to build up experience with the technology itself and running it commercially. We must move step by step," said Wu Wenqi, a professor of transportation engineering at Tongji University in Shanghai.
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