Riding the world's fastest train in Shanghai.

A series on the China gold rush.
March 21 2005 12:23 PM

Mine's Faster Than Yours

Riding Shanghai's maglev, the world's fastest train.

Chairman Maglev
Chairman Maglev

When you finish lugging your bags through Shanghai's massive Pudong International airport and recover from the blast of cigarette smoke in the lobby, you have two main ways to get to town. First, a taxi. Second, the world's fastest train. For me, that's an easy choice.

In a drive to reclaim its historical place in the cosmos—biggest and best—China is notching one superlative after another (biggest dam, highest hotel, etc.). In an effort to climb the industrial food chain, meanwhile, it is also acquiring technology from anyone willing to share it. So, in 2001, with Germany's Transrapid International seeking a place to demonstrate its magnetic levitation train—and apparently willing to give the technology away in the process—China killed two birds with one stone. Shanghai's maglev began full operation in March, 2004, covering the 20 miles from Pudong to the outskirts of the city in a blistering 7 minutes and 20 seconds.

To get to the maglev from Pudong's central terminal, you lug your bags down an endless corridor to a dome-shaped atrium with an information booth, a ticket window, and new-age piano music emanating from invisible speakers. You fork over 50 renminbi—$6—and schlep into a gold-pillared room resembling a Chinese banquet hall. You wait there, still enveloped in Muzak, and contemplate a maglev mural displayed like a portrait of Chairman Mao. Then you descend an escalator to the track—or, rather, because maglevs don't have tracks, the monorail-style "guideway" that the train whooshes along.

A moment later, the train floats in. And "float" is the word. Thanks to its electromagnetic levitation system, the train hovers a half-inch above the track. It floats like a cigarette boat gliding into a slip, the surprisingly blunt nose emitting a marvelous, rumbling growl. With maglevs, the propulsion system resides in the guideway instead of the train, allowing for less weight and faster acceleration.

Inside the car, you expect to see seat belts and shoulder harnesses (for all the good they would do in a derailment or collision at one-third the speed of sound), but, instead, find only normal seats. The doors shut, and the train accelerates like a skyscraper elevator, silently, smoothly, and rapidly, and by the time the last car leaves the station you already seem to be going 50 miles per hour. Four minutes of gravity-simulator-style acceleration later, in which the taxis on the parallel highway lose ground slowly, then quickly, then disappear as fast as if they were parked and you were whipping by at 220 miles per hour, you reach the peak speed of 270 miles per hour for the tiny 20-mile run.

Transrapid claims that the maglev is quiet and glassy smooth, but, on the contrary, when the speedometer at the end of the cabin reaches its apex, you are distinctly aware that you are speeding. The car jerks from side-to-side like a jet in turbulence, the air outside whistles in protest, and the growl beneath the floor becomes a full-bodied roar. Just after the speedometer tops out, there is a pop and blur as the maglev headed in the other direction blasts past at an aggregate speed of 534 miles per hour, approaching that of a 747 at 35,000 feet. Then, with about seven miles to go, it's time to hit the brakes, and a few miles later, when you've slowed to a mere 150 miles an hour, you feel as though you are strolling.

For gawkers and other one-time users, the maglev is the equivalent of an adult theme-park ride: cheap, thrilling, and fodder for cocktail parties. For those who just want to get to or from the airport, however, it leaves much to be desired.

First, there's the problem that the maglev doesn't really run from Pudong to Shanghai, but from Pudong to the end of one of Shanghai's subway lines, aka the burbs. So, to get to Shanghai proper, you have to schlep your bags again, either into the subway or into a taxi like the one you could have grabbed at the airport.

Then, there's cost. Thanks to China's polarized pricing system—one price for goods and services sold to foreigners and other rich folks, and another for everything else—the $6 one-way ticket is not a deal. When you throw in the added schlepping at both ends, the maglev loses in cost, convenience, and possibly even time.

Losing money at the speed of sound
Losing money at the speed of sound

These are two of the reasons the train is running at less than half of capacity, and, probably, hemorrhaging money. The maglev cost $1.2 billion or more to build, which means the system chews through north of $60 million a year in capital costs alone. Assuming 12,000 passengers per day (my estimate), the maglev generates about $27 million of revenue per year, or less than half its capital costs, much less its total costs. It is not clear who is absorbing these losses, China or Transrapid, but, either way, someone's taking a bath.

If it's China, of course, the investment may prove worth it. There is much to be said for the branding impact of cool technology: I, for one, was eager to board the maglev the moment I heard about it, and the ride helped jolt me out of my preconception of China as a land of sock-and-toy factories. Also, China is now the proud parent of a "National Research and Development Center for Maglev Transportation Technology," which presumably builds on know-how that was once the property of Transrapid.

If it's Transrapid, the company now has a live demonstration model with which to try to sell real intercity systems. But one reason Transrapid handed China the keys to its technology kingdom, presumably, was to earn the pole position in the bidding for a planned Shanghai-Beijing maglev. But alas, China dropped that plan—the Beijing-Shanghai maglev would have cost almost $50 billion, three times as much as a traditional fast train—while keeping the snazzy technology. So, it's not clear how much Transrapid really got out of the deal.

The Pudong line may eventually turn out to be a decent deal for airport users. If Shanghai keeps expanding at its present rate, traffic will soon clog the airport highway and choke off the taxi option, and the maglev terminal will soon be in the heart of the city.

Thanks to Slate readers Bharad Ramesh and Heinz Klostermann for sharing their maglev thoughts. For numerous maglev pictures, click here. As always, please send feedback and suggestions to chinagoldrush@yahoo.com.

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