Wed Sep 27th, 2006 at 10:20:32 AM EST
Last Friday, Germany's "Transrapid" TR 08 maglev test train crashed with 200 km/h into a maintenance car. The driver-less train carried 33, mostly workers and family, 23 died.
Because of the German Transrapid, whose first commercial application connects Shanghai to its airport at 430 km/h, Europe is world leader in maglev technology (despite Japan's MLX01 holding the world speed record of 581 km/h). Yet I will contend that it is an expensive prestige project without real potential.
But first about the accident. It is not clear yet what was the exact cause, but the two vehicles shouldn't have been on the track simultaneously according to operating rules. This points to human error (of the traffic controllers), yet other humans could have compensated for it: for example a driver would have been alert to start braking on sight of an obstacle (but the Transrapid runs remote-controlled for a few years now, with only emergency watchmen sitting in it), or the maintenance workers, had they been equipped with a permanent radio link to the control room.
The Transrapid magnetic levitation train system has been developed for two decades before the technology was sound (at the end of the eighties) – yet in the meantime, 'normal' high-speed trains developed a lot, too: they got closer to maglev's potential on speed, acceleration and lowered noise, and even surpassed it on riding quality. Still, technical advantages remain:
(Though the graph is outdated, the latest high-speed trains doing it on 15–20 km, but that's still a big difference.)
But against the technical advantages, beyond safety concerns, are operational and economic issues.
The Transrapid can travel only along its own special track, so a whole new network must be built for it to compete with existing networks. High-speed rail in contrast can just continue along normal tracks at normal speed where its dedicated track ends, allowing more destinations. These destinations include cities to which a new line may never be built for economic reasons.
Meanwhile, the Transrapid has one killer cost factor: the tracks. A factor bigger than for commercial high-speed, a factor that could be kept in check only with tricks.
For long, the builders and supporters in the German federal government (mainly in the CDU/CSU-FDP government of Helmut Kohl) tried to make a Berlin–Hamburg pilot line a reality – but the project was marred by severe underestimations of costs and overestimations of traffic volume to be expected, so it was finally killed by the Schröder government.
The Pudong line near Shanghai was built by sparing the connection into downtown which would have required a tunnel (thus the line ends at a suburban subway station), and benefited from state support involving the speedy razing of homes in the right of way. Its passenger numbers were severely overestimated too (still less than half than projected – with greatly reduced ticket price). The Chinese Government also ditched the maglev option for the long Beijing–Shanghai line, though it did consent to an extension of the Pudong line to Hangzhou (200 km).
The builders argued after the nixing of the Berlin–Hamburg line that the key to further exports is for Germany to build some lines just to demonstrate faith in the technology. One of the two proposals was to connect the cities of the Ruhr area, the Metrorapid. It came out that to save costs, the proposal was to build it on earth level on the place of existing (and heavily used) railway tracks. Yet this mad proposal that would have crippled regular railway operations was still too expensive, so it was dropped.
The other project, to connect Munich's airport to the city centre (despite two railway lines already serving that connection) is still alive. It too was streamlined: for example cutting the number of the very expensive switches – which, as everyone with a clue about railway operation knows, means that one vehicle failure will make the one-train-every-10-minutes schedule collapse. But in the wake of last week's disaster, the originally 1.4, now already 1.8 billion project of only 37.5 km length was again called into question.
A further sad consequence of politicians' starry-eyed boyish obsession with some gadgety high-tech mega-project is shifting funds from elsewhere to keep these mirages alive. In the case of the Transrapid, I noted in the Trainwreck diary that focus on the Transrapid's development also lead to cutbacks in the German Railways' normal high-speed development, cutbacks that caused the technology omissions that made the Eschede disaster possible.
Also, during the long years when the Berlin–Hamburg line was discussed, the German Railways was forced to keep its post-Reunification upgrade of its parallel line under the highest standards (160 km/h instead of 230 km/h), so they had to spend another lot of money in a second upgrade once the Transrapid line was dead. I note that ICE trains now cover the distance in one-and-a-half hours, while the Transrapid would have done it in one hour – not that big an advantage despite twice the top speed.
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