There must be few grander ways to showcase a nation’s technological credentials: a two-hour, 200-kilometer journey between Shanghai and Hangzhou is reduced to a mere 26 minutes thanks to the world’s longest magnetic levitation railway.
The proposed track is an extension of the world’s fist commercial high-speed maglev line running from Shanghai’s international airport into the city – covering 30km in seven minutes and reaching speeds of 430kph. The initial demonstration line cost US$1.2 billion and has been running daily since January 2004.
Transrapid International, a consortium consisting of Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, provided the operating systems and German officials talked up their chances of securing the rights for the extension. But China appeared to have other ideas.
State media were soon reporting that a domestic maglev model, developed by Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group, had received the National Development and Reform Commission’s approval. The project would begin later this year, it was claimed, at a cost of US$4.3 billion and would trump the German efforts by reaching the magic 500 kilometer-per-hour mark.
But the promise of further maglev lines and respect for Chinese high-tech prowess have been tainted by allegations of industrial espionage. Wirtschaftswoche, a German economic weekly magazine, reported that in December 2004 a group of Chinese engineers broke into a Transrapid maintenance room in Shanghai during the night. The intruders took measurements of a train, thereby stealing technology from Transrapid, the report alleged.
Chengdu Aircraft Industrial maintains it has complete intellectual property rights over the new maglev system, which is to be tested in Shanghai in July. But with accusations flying around about both state-run and private Chinese firms being involved in illegal high-tech transfer, news of the home-grown maglev project has naturally been raising officials’ eyebrows.
"One thing that people have been saying is [China is] ? adapting or stealing the technology from other countries," said Douglas Clark, a Shanghai-based intellectual property rights (IPR) specialist at international law firm Lovells. "It is a concern that has been raised." However, he notes that most high-speed railway technology – particularly that developed in the 1960s and 1970s – is in the public domain or not protected by a patent in China, making it an obvious starting point.
Growth in China’s high-tech capabilities has largely been driven by investment from overseas companies. Many of these firms worry that if they bring their latest developments with them a cheaper version will be available in China within a few years. But this transfer of technological know-how is seen as the cost of admission to the Chinese market. Beijing is all too aware of this fact, and remains confident that it can continue to attract high-tech knowledge from abroad.
Even if China can build its own maglev system, companies such as Transrapid can transfer much-needed experience and so-called "soft" intellectual property to ensure the highest levels of quality and safety. "They do seem to be out there purchasing technology from other countries," said Clark. "There are probably a number of secrets about how these things work."
Siemens and ThyssenKrupp both have large investments in China, so it would not be in their interests to protest too loudly about theft – real or imagined – despite discouraging reminders of the state of IPR protection in China. In any case, as far as Transrapid is concerned, it’s still in the running for the Shanghai-Hangzhou contract.
Berlin-based company spokeswoman Claudia Hohmann said Transrapid is currently locked in talks on the "whole system". The consortium is "in the middle of all the negotiations ? the project application and technical feasibility studies have to be done," she said. "During this phase [of negotiations] no one will talk about details – that is common practice."
A Transrapid statement, released after the project application was approved, said: "The next step will be, among other things, to define the technical details and the cost frame. It also marks the start of further negotiations with the German system industry. This is a most gratifying development."
Wherever the technology comes from, it remains to be seen whether a high-speed maglev link between Shanghai and Hangzhou will be cost-effective. Though maglev systems are expensive to build, they are less costly to operate and maintain than wheeled high-speed rail networks.
The demonstration line to the airport is used by about 4,000 people every weekday and 8,000 on weekends. This equates to about 1.9 million passengers a year. A standard one-way ticket is the equivalent of US$6.20, meaning annual revenue is approximately US$11.8 million. Paying off the capital outlay of US$1.2 billion, never mind employee wages, maintenance costs and electricity bills, would take a century.
Above all, boasting high-speed maglev makes China a member of an elite club and acts as a centerpiece for a transportation modernization drive. "They are trying to raise [transport] to a higher level of quality, mainly in a thrust for efficiency," said Peter Hilton, Hong Kong-based transport analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston. "As China is becoming a major transporter of goods and people, effectively a lot of what is done is trying to facilitate that."
The demonstration line’s operating costs are a third less than those of traditional low-speed steel-wheel-on-steel-rail systems, and only half as much as other types of high-speed rail systems. The maglev system is computer-controlled, meaning staffing levels are low. There are 10 guideway and 20 vehicle maintenance staff, but even large increases in passenger numbers should not require additional workers.
Despite criticism from some quarters, the original maglev project was completed on budget and on time, and has proven to be very reliable. The per kilometer cost was US$39.8 million – just about the same as the average rate of US$40 million per kilometer for other high-speed rail systems in South Korea, Taiwan and Europe.
The maglev project is one of numerous high-tech fields in which China wants to make its mark and, given the money backing R&D initiatives such as the 863 Program, it is willing to go to great lengths to achieve this. Ultimately, Beijing wants to substitute the low-profit-margin white goods that currently dominate its high-tech export column with proprietary technologies that the world will pay a premium to license out. While the US and European administrations fret about economic espionage and poor IPR protection, China will continue to forage ahead.
Full throttle: high-speed alternatives
High-speed trains have a top speed in the range of 240 kilometers per hour to 296kph. The record for the fastest wheeled train was set in 1990 by the French TGV at 512kph, while the maglev record of 578kph is held by an experimental Japanese system.
But simply making a train that is able to travel very fast in a straight line is useless without the necessary infrastructure to support it. Most high-speed developments are therefore extensions or improved applications of existing technology, such as upgraded or purpose-built track permitting faster speeds in practice.
Japan was the first country to construct tracks dedicated to high-speed travel to cope with mountainous terrain, and because narrow gauge lines could not be adapted. But even the ultra-reliable bullet trains of the Shinkansen network are limited by factors such as noise pollution generated by tunnel boom. The TGV tends to run on newer tracks designed to minimize the use of tunnels and sharp curves that force trains to slow down. But this type of mass-construction project is not always feasible.
Though a high-speed train may be able to run around steeply banked curves, slower passenger and freight traffic cannot. Tilting trains allow for higher speed on existing lines or where building straighter routes is not possible. Italian Pendolino technology – with trains tilted by computer rather than inertia – is widely used in Europe where the majority of high-speed services spend most of their time on conventional routes enduring speed restrictions.