Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on August 3, 2007
Foreign visitors to Shanghai marvel at the high-tech link between the airport and the city, a super-fast train without wheels that floats over the track thanks to magnetic levitation. The maglev, built by Chinese a few years ago with the help of Siemens, is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world and is one of the projects that China boosters point to as a sign that the country is now world class. No doubt the maglev is speedy. At its fastest, the maglev reaches over 400 km per hour and makes other high-speed trains like Japan’s Shinkansen and France’s TGV seem like tortoises. And it’s fun to ride. Each car of the maglev has a digital speedometer showing you just how fast the train is going. When the maglev is accelerating in the first half of its journey from the airport, that speedometer is almost hypnotic; I find that it’s hard not to watch, fascinated, as the numbers keep going higher and higher and higher.
So the maglev is certainly cool. Problem is, it’s also a major flop. As this Bloomberg story points out, the number of riders since the maglev opened in 2002 has been far less than what its builders – Transrapid, a JV between Siemens and ThyssenKrupp - had predicted. Reports Bloomberg: “The train carried 11 million passengers from December 2002 to the end of May this year….Transrapid predicted at least 10 million a year.” The train is too expensive for most Chinese and even though it travels 30 kilometers from the Pudong airport it still stops, if not in the middle of nowhere, on the outskirts. You get off and you then have to find some way to get downtown.
I’ve taken a lot of flack from readers in India for asking why the Chinese do such a better job building infrastructure than the Indians. I still think that’s a valid question, and the shabby state of Indian roads and airports and trains definitely hurts the country’s competitiveness. But as the Shanghai maglev example shows, the Chinese model has serious flaws, too. Would a democratically elected government, one that had to deal with a media free to alert citizens of its mistakes, have made the decision to waste billions of taxpayer dollars on such a train?