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Britain Considers German Magnet Rail

Britain could become the next country to adopt the German-designed Transrapid Maglev (magnetic levitation) train, according to reports in the British press on Monday.

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The Transrapid could revolutionize travel from north to south in the UK

The British government is said to be considering the German-designed Maglev magnetic levitation rail technology for a line that would run along the country's economic "spinal cord" from London to Glasgow through Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh at a cost of at least 23.7 billion euros ($28.9 billion) not including appropriation of land.

The Maglev, created by Transrapid, a joint venture between Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, is already in operation in China where the 434.5 kph (270 mph) trains hurtle along a 30.5 kilometer (19-mile) magnetic floating railway from the city of Shanghai, through surrounding paddy fields to its destination at Shanghai airport. The journey takes eight minutes by Maglev where it would take a car up to an hour.

Britain's finance minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown traveled on the Shanghai Maglev in February and was reportedly very impressed. Transrapid's British team has since briefed Tony Blair.

Britain looks for environmental alternative

Transrapid in Schanghai Fotomontage

The Maglev is more than twice as fast as Britain's fastest domestic train and 128.7mph faster than France's TGV or Japan's bullet trains. The British government is looking for an alternative to the increasing numbers of cheap domestic flights that make traveling the length of breadth of the island easier and faster but also noisier and less environmentally sound.

The Maglev is controlled by a magnetic charge which holds it 1 centimeter (less than half an inch) above a metal track and its effect on the environment is negligible. Transrapid UK have told Blair that the project would pay huge environmental dividends as it would make domestic air travel virtually obsolete, with a trip from London to Newcastle taking just one hour and 40 minutes.

Transrapid International, the German-based parent company, spent nearly two years working on a "pre-feasibility" plan for Britain before presenting it to Downing Street. Jochen Kruse, Transrapid's project manager in Shanghai, said: "We've had discussions with No. 10 -- now we'll be going to the Department for Transport."

Kruse added that a green light from Downing Street would enable Transrapid to come up with a detailed scheme in 18 months. But construction could take many years.

"How long does it typically take to build such things in England?" he asked. "If you could import a thousand Chinese workers, it could be built in a year."

Age-old problems could be a thing of the past

As well as environmental and time efficiency aspects, the Maglev network would improve the British transport system which has been deteriorating through aging train lines, badly run privatization schemes and congested roads. It could also put an end to the perennial problems the inclement British weather has on train travel.

"Leaves on the line? I really don't think that will be a problem," Kruse said.

However, despite the obvious benefits, the British will be aware of the problems that the Shanghai system has encountered since it went operational 18 months ago at a cost of 1.7 billion euros.

Expensive and prone to technical problems?

Transrapid

An estimated 2 million people have used the system so far but there are criticisms that the expensive upkeep of the technology is pricing the Maglev out of the range of ordinary Chinese.

"It cost an awful lot of money to put in and it's expensive to maintain," one businessman told the British daily The Guardian. "Most of the local Chinese people can't afford to ride on it."

The Shanghai line has had technical problems from the beginning. One of the two tracks has been shut for long periods while engineers adjust malfunctioning cables which carry the electrical charge which sparks the train's magnetism. Then there's the problem of the entire system is sinking into the Pudong, Shanghai's marshy outpost which separates the city from the airport.

However, the problems have not stopped the Chinese government from considering Transrapid's plans for a 3.8 billion euro extension to train line as a forerunner to building the line from London to Scotland.

Expansion in China , options worldwide

Pudong International Airport in Schanghai

Pudong International Airport, Shanghai

The Germans plan to extend Shanghai's line to Hangzhou, a provincial capital 201 kilometers away. Transrapid hopes the opening of the extension in 2010, in time for the World Expo in Shanghai, will persuade the British Government to commission the Maglev for its central train route.

If the British do take it on, they will join a growing list of supporters eager to take on the new technology. While Germany plans a Maglev system for an airport link in Munich, the United States government is due to choose imminently between three Maglev schemes: a Baltimore to Washington railway, an airport link in Pittsburgh or a 49.8 kilometer track through the Nevada desert linking Las Vegas with casinos on the Californian border, which could be extended to Los Angeles.

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