Shanghai Maglev: Build It And They Don't Come

New maglev train in Shanghai demonstrates the importance of siting, design, and convenience -- ridership at 27% of capacity.
May 18, 2004, 2pm PDT | Abhijeet Chavan | @legalaidtech
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"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. 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 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."

Thanks to Richard Layman

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