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Flying on the Ground in China

In nine months, the Transrapid will face its first test run in Shanghai, and all eyes will be on the magnetic levitation technology. But first the track needs to be in place, and China is pressuring Germany to deliver.

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The Transrapid is set to revolutionize train travel in China

If all goes according to schedule, the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation train will hurtle passengers across Shanghai at speeds up to 430 kilometers per hour on January 1, 2003. In eight minutes time, the train will dash across 33 kilometers of track connecting Shanghai’s financial center to the international airport.

But more is at stake than fast statistics and record firsts. Transrapid International, a German consortium comprised of Siemens AG, ThyssenKrupp AG and the German government, hopes the Shanghai sprint will convince Chinese decision makers on board to extend the so-called maglev system to other parts of the country.

The January 1 test run, carrying VIPs and other influential Chinese figures, could determine the future of maglev technology and marketability for medium and long distances. If it is completed on time, and if the Chinese leaders are satisfied with their first trip, Germany will be on the right track for continuing a billion euro project.

First though, the track needs to be finished on time. And the Chinese government reminded Germany on Monday that the deadline of January 1, 2003 is binding. This means the Germans need to hurry up and finish building the track and trains.

"If the German side does not deliver the equipment punctually, there could be consequences for the entire project," warned the former mayor of Shanghai Xu Kuangdi in a newspaper report on Tuesday.

Maiden voyage

For Germany, a lot is on the line. Over 30 years ago, German engineers began developing the unique magnetic levitation technology which is expected to revolutionize train travel by removing wheels, axles, and all other mechanical parts and replacing them with non-contact electromagnetic levitation and propulsion systems. The frictionless, driverless train is a fundamental innovation in railroad engineering, and has been referred to as "flying on the ground".

In less than a year the Transrapid will be tested for the first time on real track conditions. Up to now, the only tests conducted have been on a one-way track in Lathen, in northern Germany. Shanghai presents the first opportunity to run the train on real-life conditions.

"No one in the world has built such a line in such a short period of time. It’s kind of a world record," Transrapid’s Shanghai general manager Günter Weckerlein told Reuters on Monday.

The German consortium began work on the 1.2 billion euro ($1.37 billion) track just last year. By the end of 2003, the first maglev passenger train will open its doors for Shanghai’s 16 million people. At that time the complete two-way circuit of 66 kilometers will be finished.

The Shanghai test

The German government and industry hopes the success of the first run can help sell maglev technology elsewhere in China, in the United States and at home in Germany.

"They want to see the success of our project first," said Weckerlein, who has worked on the high-speed rail system since 1992 and on the Shanghai project since it began in June 2000.

If the Transrapid passes the Shanghai test, Germany will most likely be in the running for a much larger project: the Beijing-Shanghai connection. Estimated at a cost of €25 billion ($22 billion), the track will connect the capital’s airport to Tianjin port 1,300 kilometers away.

Shanghai’s former mayor Xu Kuangdi said on Monday that reliability, stability and cost were central considerations for the Beijing-Shanghai line. Just because Shanghai decided to use the maglev technology doesn’t mean it will automatically be selected for the longer stretch, Xu said.

"When Shanghai’s 33-km line is completed, it will probably influence our future decision," Xu told a news conference on Monday.

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