By Haibing Ma and Jiajing Bi

China used to be the "Kingdom of Bicycles"

China’s transportation sector is undergoing a revolution. As the average wealth of Chinese citizens improves, the country formerly known as the “kingdom of bicycles” is experiencing a swell of motorization. In 2009, China surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest auto producer and market.

At the end of 2009, China was home to 170 million vehicles. Projections indicate that the country could add as many as 220 million new vehicles to its market between now and 2020. Already, the transportation sector accounts for about a fifth of China’s total energy consumption.  

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I admit it was in part the thrill of speed that made me take the Maglev train from Shanghai to nearby Pudong International Airport. I was in town for a high-level symposium on economic recovery jointly organized by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

To my knowledge, there’s no other ground transportation system on Earth that comes close to the dash through the Chinese countryside that reaches a top speed of 431 kilometers per hour (267 miles per hour). Alternatively, I could have taken the metro—the No. 2 line was recently extended out to the airport, part of Shanghai’s rapidly expanding network. Instead, I took the No. 1 and 2 subways from the city center to Longyang Road, where metro and Maglev link up.

The metro ride to Longyang Road (which involved a total of seven stops) took about 40 minutes. The Maglev ride [YouTube video] lasted all of seven minutes covering 30 kilometers (19 miles), or about double the distance of my metro trip. With incredible acceleration, buildings and bridges fly past in a blur, and even at top speed there’s fairly little vibration.

Maglev train at Shanghai's Pudong airport

With the World Expo taking place in Shanghai this May through October, I suspect that Maglev ridership will expand, although ticket prices are about ten times as much as the (cheap) metro fares for a comparable distance. (This is still much cheaper and faster than taking a taxi to the airport.) China also just announced—as I coincidentally read in China Daily while riding the Maglev—that the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group in Sichuan province has completed the first domestically made Maglev train, a local version of the German technology used in the Shanghai line.

In truth, the Maglev technology—which relies on powerful magnets rather than on rail tracks—will probably always remain something of an exotic experiment. It’s expensive and you can’t use the technology to its full benefit in densely populated areas or on anything that deviates too much from a straight line. Public opposition has prevented the existing Shanghai line from being extended to the city of Hangzhou or even to Shanghai’s domestic airport, Hongqiao.

More conventional high-speed rail, in the meantime, has growing appeal in numerous countries around the world. China is not only investing vast sums of money in expanding its own network, but is fast becoming a serious competitor internationally. (Though its efforts to learn from and replicate foreign technology has led to angry charges from a Japanese competitor that the country is stealing technology.)

The New York Times recently reported that Chinese companies have already begun to build high-speed lines in Turkey, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia and are looking for similar deals in other countries, including Brazil and the United States. As a sweetener in its efforts to win a contract in California against intense competition, China is offering to help finance construction of the planned line in the financially strapped state.

So, while you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for a Maglev line near you to materialize, more conventional high-speed rail lines will likely become more and more prominent.

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