Faster Than a Speeding Bullet Train
Cutting-Edge Maglev Rail Line Boosts Pride in Shanghai, but Ridership Lags
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 17, 2004; Page A14
SHANGHAI -- Smoothly, quietly, but relentlessly, the sleek new train picked up speed.
Reaching 100 mph, it seemed similar to the fast trains of Europe and Japan. But by 200 mph, Shanghai's passing suburbs started to blur in the window. And at 287 mph, the top speed, passengers could clearly feel that their ride to the airport had become a streak into railroad history.
"It's great," said Andrew Suan, 35, an investment adviser on his way to catch a flight for Hong Kong. "It's better than Disneyland."
Shanghai's new magnetic levitation train, or maglev, built by German engineers for $1.2 billion to cover 20 miles in less than eight minutes, has proved it can make an impression, even in a city that lives on superlatives. China's biggest, richest, most advanced, most with-it metropolis has scored again, becoming home to the fastest and most technologically innovative train in the world.
The addition of maglev transportation has been an important boost to China's and Shanghai's idea of themselves as a nation and city zooming toward a prosperous future under the stewardship of a forward-looking Communist Party. It also has been a key testing ground for ThyssenKrupp and Siemens, the German companies that are its main manufacturers -- and that are in the bidding for a planned $16 billion high-speed Shanghai-to-Beijing line.
Success here could boost their chances in the competition against French, Japanese and other German fast-train firms, as well as the Chinese Railway Ministry, for that lucrative project, designed to halve the 14 hours it now takes to make the 865-mile trip between China's two main cities. Chinese officials originally announced the new rail line would be ready for the 2008 Olympics, but that schedule seems to have slipped since President Hu Jintao's government took over last year and ordered further studies.
In Shanghai, however, the studies are finished. The airport express became the first magnetic levitation line to operate commercially early this year.
Since then, its warp speed and breakthrough technology have attracted thousands of admirers and thrill riders, including Premier Wen Jiabao. Proud city officials have opened a little museum in the city-end departure terminal to explain how the train works: The repelling and attracting forces of powerful magnets suspend the carriages above the track and, because that eliminates the drag of friction, are able to push them along smoothly at breakneck speeds.
But for most airline passengers landing after long flights from abroad or heading out on business trips, the technological marvel has not become the automatic answer to their search for a quick, convenient ride to connect the futuristic Pudong International Airport with Shanghai's crowded downtown skyscrapers.
For the first three months of commercial operation, the maglev ran on an abbreviated schedule at less than 20 percent of capacity, city officials calculated. The beginning months were further tarnished by reports that the track was sinking. But engineers quickly reassured the public that sinking was natural in the area's soft soil -- and foreseen in construction -- and that fixing it was only a matter of adjusting the tracks.
After cutting prices by a third, to $6 one way, on April 15 and adding runs so trains depart every 15 to 20 minutes on an 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. schedule, the city's Maglev Transportation Department Co. has raised its estimates of passengers to about 8,000 a day. But that still is only 27 percent of capacity. And the latest period measured, the company acknowledged, included the May Day holiday week during which many passengers were Chinese tourists taking a thrill ride, the way they would at Disneyland.
Angelina Wang, 25, who arrived at Pudong International on a recent day for a break from her job at a language school in Switzerland, provided two telling explanations for the slack ridership among business and other travelers who are the target market.
Asked why she was in an airport taxi line rather than heading for the train, Wang at first expressed puzzlement, having forgotten there was such a line a 10-minute walk away. Her lack of awareness was shared by two Shanghai taxi drivers, who did not know how to find the terminal.
According to business sources who participated in the maglev start-up, Shanghai authorities have been slow to establish connections with airlines and travel agencies so arriving passengers are made aware the high-speed wonder awaits them. In addition, they said, signs are inadequate inside the airport to guide passengers toward the long corridor leading to the train's departure area.
But Wang said the real reason she preferred a taxi was convenience. With suitcases to lug around after a tiring flight, she said, the temptation was to just plop into a taxi and give her home address. The alternative, she pointed out, was walking with her bags to the train platform, and then changing to a taxi or subway once the train arrived at its suburban Pudong departure terminal. Moreover, she said, the price of taking a taxi directly from the airport ends up being only a little higher.
"It's just easier," she said, turning to board her taxi.
A graying businessman who travels to Shanghai from Europe about once a month agreed, saying he has tried the train but prefers a taxi. "The taxi is just more convenient," he said as a young traveling companion nodded. "It goes right to the hotel."
The city departure terminal was built adjoining an existing subway station at Longyang Road, on the edge of Shanghai's new Pudong district. It lies well on the eastern side of the Huangpu River, a long taxi ride from the traditional center of the city on the river's western bank.
Several extensions have been discussed. For the moment, however, the fastest train in the world takes travelers to what amounts to a subway stop on the edge of the city. But one regular traveler, who has yet to try the train, suggested that still may look good in the years to come as Shanghai's traffic steadily worsens and the taxi ride to the airport gets longer and longer.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company