German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and industry leaders arrive in China for a state visit marking the opening of the first German-built Transrapid rail line -- a feather in the cap for German-Chinese relations.
Transrapid: Forging a new path for German-Chinese relations at lightning speed
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder arrived in China on Sunday, where he is making a three-day state visit. At the top of his agenda is a test drive of the new Transrapid train connecting downtown Shanghai with its airport. Together with Premiere Zhu Rongji, Schröder will open the much-touted stretch. Prior to their inaugural voyage, Schröder will meet with the Chinese leaders -- including President Jiang Zemin and his expected successor, deputy president and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao.
In Beijing on Sunday, Schröder met with the man who brought the Transrapid back from the sidelines: Premier Zhu. The premier, trained as an engineer, has long been fascinated by the Transrapid's magnetic levitation technology. Again and again, he has asked Schröder why this "treasure" hasn't been deployed in Germany, where it was first developed. After having taken a ride on a Transrapid train on a test track in Emsland, Germany, in summer 2000, Rongji made the decision that China would help create a breakthrough for the technology.
"A beautiful future"
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (left) and Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji (right)
On Sunday, Schröder met with Zhu (photo), who raised the possibility that additional projects could be announced after their planned ride on the recently completed Transrapid line on New Year's Day. Zhu compared the German-Chinese relationship with the high-speed train, saying, "It also wants to race ahead at 450 kilometers per hour." He added that the Transrapid had a "beautiful future" in China. Schröder also used the opportunity to give his Beijing counterparts a pat on the back, saying that Chinese-German relations were "first class" and used the Transrapid as an example of how advanced political and economic relations between the countries have become.
On Monday morning, Schröder plans to meet with Chinese President Jiang and his handpicked successor, Hu, for political talks. After that, he will join German Economics and Labor Minister Wolfgang Clement and Transportation Minister Manfred Stolpe and industry representatives early New Year's Day for the opening of the world's first commercial Transrapid line. The hi-tech train, which can zip on a magnetic cushion at speeds as high as 550 kilometers per hour, will whisk passengers along the 30 kilometer (18.64 mile) route between Pudong Airport and the Shanghai financial district in just eight minutes.
Construction of the line took less than two years and the joint German-Chinese project was completed on schedule. The Chinese were aided by the German engineering firm Bögel as well as 50 million euro ($52.2 million) in financial aid from the German government. German engineering and industry giants Siemens and Thyssen-Krupp constructed the trains and signaling equipment for the new route. The entire project is expected to cost in the neighborhood of 1.3 billion euros.
More plans on drawing board
For the consortium of companies promoting the Transrapid, the Shanghai deal was the last hope for the technology. Without the credentials of a route in the port city, the mag-lev technology would likely have disappeared back to the drawing board. But now, the airport line is intended to prove the Transrapid's viability in around the clock operation. Following the test run this week, Siemens and Thyssen-Krupp are hoping to close a new deal with the government to build additional Transrapid routes.
However, few expect Schröder will return from his state visit with a declaration of intent from the Chinese to build a rumored 200 kilometer route between Shanghai and the tourist resort Hangzhou. A line along the 1,250 kilometer stretch between Beijing and Shanghai is also under consideration.
Peer Steinbrück, premier of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia is hoping for an altogether different signal. He's hoping the German government, based on the project's hopeful success in China, will provide additional subsidies for a planned Transrapid project in his state -- which would provide a speedy link for commuters between the cities of Dortmund and Düsseldorf and provide the first commercial application of the railway technology in Germany.
But for the consortium backing the Transrapid, a first German project is no longer as important as it once seemed. "The prospects are good that more will be built," Siemens CEO Heinrich von Pierer, who is traveling in China with Schröder, said in Beijing on Sunday. After the blow of a planned route between Berlin and Hamburg getting cancelled by the cash-strapped government, von Pierer said it was no longer necessary to have a German model route.
"They can also be built in China," he said.