Shanghai’s Lightning Train Comes to a Stop

On May 26, the Shanghai government announced that construction of the Maglev route between Shanghai and Hangzhou had been suspended following public protests along the route due to fear of radiation from the trains. Maglev trains use electromagnetic force to suspend, guide and pull them along tracks they do not actually touch.

Approved by the central government in March 2006, the track, costing 35 billion yuan, would have been 175 kilometers long, with trains reaching speeds of 450 kilometers per hour, making the journey in just 28 minutes. It was due to be completed in time for the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010.

Sources in Shanghai said the suspension would be permanent, dashing the hopes of Germany’s Transrapid Konsortium – ThyssenKrupp and Siemens – to put in service the first inter-city Maglev line in the world. The only line in commercial use is a 30-km stretch between Shanghai’s Pudong airport and Longyang Road, a suburb in eastern Shanghai.

As often in China, the main reason for the suspension was politics rather than technology. Last September party chief Chen Liangyu was dismissed and put under investigation over a scandal involving social security funds. His successor, Xi Jinping, took office at the end of March. Chen was closely identified with the Maglev project, which he saw as part of the upgrading of the city for the Expo and an example of the technology Shanghai should have.

But public opposition to the project has been intense and widespread. Building the line would involve the demolition of thousands of homes in south and west Shanghai. The plan called for an extension of the existing line to the World Expo site, over the Huangpu River and to Shanghai South Railway Station. From there, a double track would be built, with the northern route leading to Hongqiao, Shanghai’s other airport, and the southern route following the expressway to Hangzhou.

The government received complaints by letter and online both from people who were to have their homes demolished and those living close to the track who feared the effects of radiation. The design calls for a greenbelt of 22.5 metres on either side, compared to the 300 metres suggested by German specifications. One district government received more than 5,000 petitioners in a single day in March.

Demolition work began in some areas in March and April and was due to be completed by the end of this year. This has been halted. But in China, public protest would not be sufficient to derail a major infrastructure project. What counted in this case was the change of leadership and a reconsideration of the economics of the route. Shanghai and Hangzhou are well-served by frequent trains that take two to three hours. A high-speed conventional train could make the journey in 35 minutes, only seven minutes longer than the Maglev, but would cost half as much.

The proposed cost of a Maglev ticket was another problem. It would be 150 yuan, three times the current fare. China’s conventional railway system is in the middle of the largest expansion in its history. The Ministry of Railways plan calls for the annual addition of about 1,700 km in new track over 15 years at a cost of 2 trillion yuan. High-speed trains already have been introduced between major cities that are equal in speed and comfort to those in Europe.

The suspension is a bitter blow to Transrapid and the German government, which have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Maglev development, as a flagship example of Germany’s technological prowess. But until the Pudong airport line opened on December 31, 2002, the German consortium had failed to persuade any city in the world to build one. Munich is considering one between the city center and its airport, a distance of 37 kilometres. But last September (2006), 23 people were killed in an accident at a test track in western Germany near the Dutch border, when a Maglev train ploughed into a maintenance vehicle at 200 kilometers per hour.

The Maglev had drawn opposition in Europe also due to fears of radiation and the colossal initial investment. Most economic would be a Maglev built over long distances, like Berlin-Moscow or Berlin-Rome, which would be able to compete with air travel in time and price.

Shanghainese call the Pudong track the “Zhu Rongji project,” named after China’s former premier, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the Maglev and rode on its inaugural run from the airport with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. It reaches a maximum speed of 430 km and the journey takes eight minutes. But it doesn’t take plane travelers into the city center but rather to a suburb, from where they must take a subway, bus or a taxi. As a result, many passengers are tourists who simply want to be photographed below the speedometer showing 430 km per hour, the world’s fastest train.

Well-heeled travelers at Pudong airport do what they have always done – take a taxi or a private car into the city, while ordinary people take a bus. It looks like they will continue to do so.