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Apr 132010

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.

  4 Responses to “Thrill Ride: Experiencing China’s Maglev Train”

  1. One detail I should have added to my story is that a one-way ride on the Maglev train costs 50 Yuan. That is equivalent to $7.32 at the current exchange rate.

    While this is a low amount for someone with typical Western earnings, it is a substantial sum for many Chinese. It would require almost 5 hours of work for an average urban worker with a contract (2005 data), but roughly double that for a worker without a contract.

  2. Another follow-up:
    On April 12, the U.S. edition of China Daily (http://www.chinadailyusa.com/news/NewsInfo.asp?range=&lv2=5&id=17715) published an article that examines the pros and cons of Maglev trains, and the highly controversial discussion that continues in China. Here’s the gist of the article:

    Public opposition had seemingly forced the cancellation of the planned extension from Shanghai to Hangzhou two years ago–a 200 kilometer line that would have involved a 30-minute train ride. But the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the top economic planning entity, gave a go-ahead for the project last month.

    Authorities have been far less than transparent, insisting that construction is not imminent. But some preliminary work, such as earmarking a parcel of land for a Maglev station at Hongqiao Airport, has apparently already been done.

    Many Chinese have concerns over the cost and noise of Maglev, and there is considerable fear that the powerful electromagnets may pose radiation dangers. There is also opposition to other high-speed rail lines. A question, though, is whether some travel that now takes place by air can be shifted to rail. This expectation is validated by the experience of other countries–most recently Spain, where a Madrid-Barcelona line has substantially reduced air travel between the two cities, with overall environmental benefits.

  3. Lets start facing the realities! Magnetic shielding can prevent any magnetic radiation leak, with supermalloy amongst others. The only way to get the world off oil is to find transport that doesn t use any oil.. no moving or touching parts to wear out, vastly increased saftey and finally a way to a single mmode of transport worldwide.. This is it. Most peple are running on outdated misinformation.

    6 times more efficient than steel wheels on rail.. how much more do you want..

  4. Hello Michael, I am a newbie to this gorgeous interdisciplinary think-tank that touches on the multiple dimensions of our species and its effects it has on our Mother, our only mother, encapsulated in space. This is my first mind belch on this website.
    I do wonder where the roots of this “public” outcry against this beautiful non-fossil-fuel-consuming technology comes from; is it being instrumented by the power elite of our planet, or is it a grassroots movement of the lower and middle classes in China? I think we both know who is behind it.
    We know that the status-quo, heavily invested in the…status-quo, existing in the business, political, and media sectors, all with their higher-ups, is very good at shaping peoples’ psyche through the media and public events, our country is a poster-boy for being psychologically manipulated for vested interests, just look at what is in our water, food, and “news” stations. We know that the status-quo fears change, because with change comes possible paradigm shifts effecting economic and political structure, which could mean their hands not in the power source with all of its… benefits. Economic, psychological,benefits. They’re just on a big power trip, its a powerful drug. The last thing these status-quoers want is a paradigm shift resulting in a renewed respect for Earth and how woven into it, dependent on it, fragile, we are. A paradigm shift resulting in a drastically reduced demand for renewable energy is absolutely disgusting to them.
    So I believe it would be good to possibly dig into the phenomenological roots of opposition to this greener technology- Of course, it is best to start with science; on a physical plane, science can simply discard multiple oppositional standpoints: radiation, for instance. Showing the science behind Maglev would squash health concerns, or actually validate them. And we all know that the health concerns that come from this are much worse than what we work with right now… although getting the science, as we see with the debate between Japan and China, may be difficult- new technology, even green technology, is bogarded in secrecy for business reasons, contracts. The cost factors, as we know, are at least half bergeouis, as political and business factors smokescreen real relative costs.
    I believe that, if we dig, we would see that the roots of discomfort in Maglev technology reside within the minds of the global petroleum dictatorship- They’ve still got billions of dollars of raw “business” to do, and, with their big straws, they are going to do everything in their power to make sure every last drop is sucked up and incinerated before the next stoic step is made. The global Hubbert’s peak isn’t THAT far away; why not get there, right? These oil men are very good at shaping the psyche of the mass chunks of a populous, knowing that the populous can be played psychologically- pushing unconscious tribal fear buttons discreetly. So I will ask again-where are the roots of this opposition to technology that doesn’t require pumping in a consumable product at an inflatable and deflatable rate, allowing power to shape total infrastructure, in a money-based, global corporate-run, government subservient reality?

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