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China Considering Magnetic Train

December 18, 2000

SHANGHAI, China (AP) _ The image is as seductive as it is futuristic: a train floating above its track races along at jet plane speed.

Now, Shanghai is buying into that dream. The city is contemplating building the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation train, hoping to add to its high-tech luster by becoming a showcase for the costly, controversial ``maglev″ technology.

Ardently pursuing the contract is a German consortium, Transrapid. Germany has poured decades and billions of dollars into developing maglev, as has Japan. Yet neither has put it to commercial use.

German press reports say Shanghai is to sign a contract with Transrapid as early as this month for a 20- to 25-mile line to the 1-year-old Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The venture could cost more than $1 billion.

Negotiations have been taking place, but neither the city government, German officials nor Transrapid will comment. The partners in the consortium are engineering giants Siemens and ThyssenKrupp and train builder Adtranz, owned by DaimlerChrysler.

Maglev boosters call it an alternative to congested highways. The United States, Japan and other countries are considering building maglev lines.

Doubters, including some in Shanghai, wonder whether the city could wind up buying a white elephant. They note that rising speeds delivered by cheaper, proven high-speed rail systems could make maglev obsolete.

``Frankly speaking, the project is controversial in local experts’ circles,″ said Yang Shu, a spokesman for the Shanghai City Planning Administration Bureau. ``It will be the first commercial maglev in the world, so it is quite experimental.″

If it works, the payoff could be bigger than just a ride to the airport at 250 mph.

The system’s builder could be required to hand over technology _ a common condition of major Asian building projects. Overnight, Shanghai would become a center for maglev development. And the railway would stand as proof of this booming, energetic city’s daring, visible to every visitor arriving at Pudong airport.

``It has the right ring of next technology, futuristic, 21st century about it,″ said Tony Eastham, an engineering professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. ``Practically, you get a lot of downside. This still is not a fully developed technology.″

Maglev uses powerful magnets to hold a train a few millimeters from the track and propel it with little noise or vibration. In April, a Japanese test maglev set a speed record of 343 mph. By contrast, French high-speed rail tests have reached 310 mph.

Germany has its own test maglev, which a delighted Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji rode in July.

In the United States, seven regions in California, Florida and elsewhere are competing for an experimental maglev. In Japan, developers hope to have it considered for a new Tokyo-Osaka line.

Maglev boosters suffered a setback in February when Germany canceled a planned Berlin-Hamburg line. Railway officials said it would lose money and critics worried its magnets might harm wildlife.

The German news magazine Focus said the proposal for Shanghai would cost $1.2 billion. That includes four 600-seat trains, a drive system and switches, plus building costs of about $350 million.

The German government, eager for a working system to show off to buyers, is offering financing of up to $450 million, the magazine said.

At that rate, Germany would be supplying equipment for free in exchange for Shanghai building the precision-engineered magnetic track.

Shanghai, a sprawling business center with 13 million people, has served as a laboratory for Chinese experiments in economic and social reform. Maglev could do the same for mass transit. The city already has shown a flair for public works projects. In the past five years, Shanghai has built a subway, expressways, a new financial district and a tunnel under the Huangpu River.

Still, it isn’t clear how China could capitalize on maglev even if its builders share their research. The technology has yet to win a commercial customer. And engineers say it is so revolutionary that it is unlikely to advance other work on power generation, electronics or weapons.

Maglev also faces growing competition from traditional rail systems.

Trains from France, Japan and Germany itself are offering increasing speed and an impressive safety record that counts only a single fatal crash since the first Shinkansen pulled out of Tokyo Station in 1964.

Even in China, plans for a 1,200-mile high-speed line linking Shanghai to the national capital, Beijing, call for using rail, not maglev.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: AP correspondent Colleen Barry in Berlin contributed to this report.

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