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German Transrapid Runs on Schedule in Shanghai

Three decades after Germans began working on a magnetic railway and three years after China ordered the system as Shanghai’s airport connection, trains began regular operations Monday. Future projects remain uncertain.

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Now taking off from Shanghai airport seven days a week

Three days ahead of schedule, the world’s first magnetic railway line took off with “fairly crowded” carriages, according to the Chinese operating company. No celebrations marked the occasion, however, as the maiden run had already happened on New Year’s Eve 2002, with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji on board.

Since then, about half a million passengers have used the $1 billion (€800 million) rail link during its technologically troubled test phase for the eight minute, 30 kilometer (18.6 miles) ride from Shanghai’s airport to the city’s financial district.

Johannes Rau fährt Transrapid in China

German President Johannes Rau, right, and ThyssenKrupp CEO Ekkehard Schulz travelled by Shanghai Transrapid last September.

The trains, which have reached record speeds of 501 kilometers per hour, will now run during weekday mornings and all day on weekends. By 2005, Transrapid is expected to carry 10 million passengers per year.

A Chinese showcase for German technology

The German Transrapid consortium, which is made up of ThyssenKrupp and Siemens, hailed Monday’s start of regular operations as a breakthrough for the magnetic railway technology made in Germany. Critics have argued, however, that Transrapid is an expensive waste of energy as conventional high-speed trains can almost match its speed.

Transrapid's Chinese customers have also begun to wonder why the system still doesn't exist in the country of its conception. Earlier this year, the government of the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia scrapped a €3.2 billion project to build a Tranrapid line between Düsseldorf and Dortmund.

Transrapid im Emsland

Transrapid has been running on a test line in northwestern Germany, but it's still unclear whether an actual railway link will ever be built in the country.

“Why don’t you build the Transrapid in Germany,” asked Liang Baohua, the governor of Jiangsu province, where officials are thinking about ordering the system as well. While the consortium has abandoned efforts to win the concession for a 1,300 kilometer link from Shanghai to Beijing, it still hopes to build shorter routes from Shanghai to Hangzou (180 kilometers) or Nanjing (300 kilometers).

Munich Transrapid in 2010?

To appease Chinese concerns over Germany’s failure to introduce the system at home, Transrapid makers are now setting their hopes on a project connecting Munich and its airport and announced a potential starting date of 2010 on Monday. Financing of the €1.6 billion railway link is still uncertain, however.

The consortium could make good use of the Munich contract as its German factory is running out of work: While 600 people were employed there at the high point of production, the company announced in early December that most of its employees would have to work reduced hours because of a lack of demand.

Transferring technology and work to China

Transrapid Zug kommt in Schanghai an

In Shanghai, Chinese workers have so far only helped to unload Transrapid carriages, but they are likely to build them for future lines.

While the Shanghai Transrapid carriages were still produced in Germany, future ones are likely to be made by Chinese workers: As the largest potential market for magnetic railway lines, China is calling for a transfer of the technology to build Transrapid at home.

While describing this as an inevitable step, Siemens CEO Heinrich von Pierer has said that some jobs would still remain in Germany.

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