In honour of Obama’s plan to move America’s rail system out of the stone age, here’s what it’s like to ride the fastest train in the world.
Back in 2005, Slate sent me to China to write about the economic boom. One stop was the Maglev, which covers the 20-mile trip from the Shanghai airport to the outskirts of the city at a third of the speed of sound. If you want your government to burn money on exciting toys, there’s just nothing better than a maglev.
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 marvellous, 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 polarised 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.
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.