SHANGHAI, China - Every weekend, an unusual train glides out from a nondescript station, carrying its passengers at remarkable speeds along tracks high above the farms and factories east of downtown Shanghai. With a cruising speed of nearly 270 miles per hour, it is the fastest passenger train in the world, but what makes the train truly extraordinary is what it lacks underneath its alloy chassis: wheels.
At a cost exceeding $1.2 billion, the Shanghai Transrapid line might be the most expensive 19-mile train route on the planet. By early next year it is due to become the world's first high-speed magnetic levitation or "maglev" train in full commercial operation.
The big question now is if it will also be the last - for the foreseeable future, at least. A maglev train linking Baltimore and Washington, a concept pushed by Baltimore for more than 11 years, is one of three leading candidates for the first maglev line in the United States. But the project's future depends on $950 million in federal funds, on the support of the state, which would also have to provide money, and on whether private financiers believe the train can operate profitably.
The only working example anyone can consider when making decisions is the Shanghai Transrapid, which carried then-Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on its maiden voyage Dec. 31, less than two years after construction began. So far, the train is a popular tourist attraction, but the signals about its future are mixed.
The maglev's German designers had hoped to win a contract to build a line from Beijing to Shanghai, turning a 14-hour trip into a commute of three to four hours. But the China Railway Ministry appears inclined to consider proposals only from manufacturers of slower, wheeled trains, as critics question the economic and practical wisdom of entrusting a critical rail corridor to what they view as an unproven, expensive technology.
"The Australians considered the maglev between Sydney and Kampala. They gave it up," said Shen Zhijie, who retired in April as director of the High-Speed Track Office of the China Railway Ministry. "The Koreans also considered the maglev between Seoul and Pusan, and they also gave it up.
"The Beijing-Shanghai railway has to be for serious transportation. It's not for exhibition or tourism, and you cannot just argue theoretically."
China has a passion for railways and an appetite for grandiose public projects. The government is paying for the world's highest-altitude railroad (to Tibet), the world's largest dam and the world's third manned space program. With the Shanghai Transrapid, the country has the fastest passenger train. During daylight hours on weekends, the Shanghai Transrapid shuttles passengers between Shanghai's suburban airport and the city's urban outskirts, where Shanghai mass transit carries passengers the rest of the way into town.
But for now the 19-mile, eight-minute trip remains mostly an experiment - for the technology, the engineers who built it and the enthusiasts watching from far away, including Baltimore and Washington.
Above all, it is an experiment for Beijing's decision-makers, who appear to be leaning toward more conventional high-speed trains, like ones already in use in Japan and Europe, for the new Beijing-Shanghai line. That has to be troubling for the maglev's passionate adherents: If the maglev train can't succeed here, where the government can spend whatever it wants, and where more than a billion passengers a year take trains, then where can it succeed?
The Shanghai Transrapid begins each trip smoothly, gliding on an elevated track. On this particular weekday test run, a group of electrical workers is being rewarded with a ride.
As the train accelerates, the speed and time are displayed on digital screens at the front of each passenger car. The train reaches 100 mph in little more than a minute, and about 175 mph after two minutes.
An air suspension system, backed up by a secondary system of springs, keeps the train floating along without the bumps typical in wheeled trains.
But in the third minute, as the train approaches 250 mph, the passenger cars begin to wobble.
At the 3:21 mark, the train reaches the top cruising speed of almost 268 mph - maglevs can go faster but not on this short route. The train moves through the air at such high speed that it creates a low whistling that could become unnerving on a longer trip. The engineers behind the maglev may have figured out how to get rid of friction with the tracks below, but there's no way to eliminate friction with the air.
The safety issue
The train's rates of acceleration and deceleration are carefully controlled, which means that people can stand and walk in the aisle at any point during the trip. Still, at these speeds, some passengers may become conscious of the lack of safety belts in a way they never would on typical trains.