Time is money on Maglev train

Source:Global Times Published: 2010-3-18 8:26:29

A Maglev train stands at a station in Shanghai on January 8, 2010. Photo: CFP

By Guo Qiang

Controversy has erupted over the possible construction of a 200-kilometer magnetic levitation train line connecting Shanghai and Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, with critics saying the project is a waste of over 20 billion yuan.

The Ministry of Railways chief planner Zheng Jian revealed last Saturday that China has given the green light to the Maglev project, which was suspended in 2007 over environmental and cost concerns.

Opponents of the project contest it is unnecessary, as one high-speed railway has already been built, reducing the travel time to 80 minutes from two hours on a conventional train. Strengthening their argument is the fact that a new express railway, to be completed at the end of this year, will run at speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour, cutting travel time further, to 48 minutes.

The Shanghai-Hangzhou Maglev, which requires investment of 22 billion yuan ($3,23 billion), would run at a top speed of 430 kilometers per hour, reducing the travel time by just 10 minutes to 38 minutes.

The new line will link the Shanghai South Railway Station, Hongqiao Airport, Pudong Airport and Hangzhou.

It will extend the existing 31 kilometer-long Maglev project, which connects Shanghai Pudong International Airport and the Longyang Road Station. The 1.2 billion yuan airport line, launched in 2004, is China's and the world's only commercial high-speed Maglev service.

The Zhejiang Provincial Development and Reform Commission told the Xinhua News Agency that there is no schedule for the start of construction and the project is still subject to feasibility studies.

A previous Xinhua report said construction on the project would begin this year and was expected to be finished in 2014.

The State Council gave a go-ahead to the extension in 2006, but radiation and noise concerns, and residents' fears that they would lose their property along the planned route, prompted authorities to suspend the project in 2007. The line was originally due to be finished before the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

Safety and cost concerns have become major reasons for other countries, including Germany, where the technology was born, to suspend Maglev train projects.

Germany has called a halt to three major Maglev projects, including the Hamburg-Berlin, Metrorapid, and Munich airport link projects, due to cost concerns.


Wang Mengshu, professor at the Tunnel and Underground Engineering Research Center at Beijing Jiaotong University, told the Global Times that Maglev trains are nothing but "transport toys."

"It is unsafe, unreliable and uneconomical,"he said, "The core issue is that an individual Maglev railway cannot join existing networks as it floats on a cushion of air, and its capacity cannot be expanded as the traditional wheel rail can.

"It is difficult to repair and maintain the trains and rescue passengers if the train is out of order. Besides, its strong radiation may cause leukemia among residents living nearby and passengers who use it,"he said.

The Shanghai environmental authority said earlier that scientific research and experiments showed that there is virtually no electro-magnetic radiation five meters away from the railway. As for the noise issue, the trains can run slower in downtown areas, and speed up in suburban areas.

Wang told the media that, not long after it began operating, it cost a staggering 90 million euros to update aging coils on the line, and one billion yuan has so far been used to cover equipment updates.

According to Wang, the Shanghai Maglev Transportation Development Co, which owns the airport line, has been straddled with 7 billion yuan in asset debts and its annual operational debt could be up to 70 million yuan.

Fueled by the government's mammoth 4 trillion yuan stimulus package, a proposed nationwide high-speed passenger-rail network aims to drive China's economy. In the blueprint outlined by railway officials, China's passenger network could be increased to 12,000 kilometers by 2020.

The 350-kilometer-per-hour railway linking Wuhan and Guangzhou and a 1,318-kilometer Beijing-Shanghai line, set to open in 2012, are symbols of the government's railway construction ambitions.

Critics have said the high costs of the plans mean China would eventually have to face up to a railroad-debt crisis.

The government has denied that the railway network will be a drag on the economy in the long term.



Although doubts over the Maglev project are prevalent, proponents of the project argue it could help optimize resource allocation in theYangtze River Delta region, that includes Shanghai, Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province in the south.

Sun Zhang, professor at the Urban Rail Transit and Railway Engineering Department at Shanghai Tongji University, is one of the proponents. He said construction of the Maglev railway could inject huge momentum into economic development in theYangtze River Delta region.

He said there are currently only two railways lines between Shanghai and Hangzhou, compared to six lines between Shanghai and Nanjing.

"The Maglev railway can also help increase the country's strategic oil reserves because Maglev trains are magnetically driven while airplanes, the Maglev train's biggest competitor, use oil,"he said.

He refuted charges that the Maglev railway damages the environment, saying the noise from the Maglev railway is less than that of conventional trains.

"The truth often lies in the hands of a few. Despite the controversy, I believe the Maglev trains' advantages outweigh the disadvantages,"he said.

Local authorities reportedly believe that the new line would reverse the loss on the 31 km demonstration line, as the extension will bring more passengers.

Song Shengxia contributed to this story

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