Maglev trains -- transport tech that simply won't fly

28th March 2008, Comments 0 comments

The decision announced Thursday to halt plans for a 37-kilometer link between Munich's airport and the city center may be the final nail in the coffin for the prestige project.

Berlin -- The magnetic levitation (maglev) idea was patented as long ago as the 1930s. For the past four decades, Germany's best engineers have been working out the technical details.

But the Transrapid -- the monorail maglev system developed by Siemens and ThyssenKrupp that has trains speeding on a magnetic cushion at 500 kilometers an hour -- simply won't fly.

The decision announced Thursday to halt plans for a 37-kilometer link between Munich's airport and the city center may be the final nail in the coffin for the prestige project.

The federal German government and the state of Bavaria withdrew their financial backing when it became clear that costs were soaring towards 3 billion euros (4.6 billion dollars).

Berlin had been prepared to put up 925 million euros - half the 1.85 billion estimated for the project when the go-ahead was given in September last year. Bavaria was to stump up 500 million.

The hope was that a successful Transrapid in Germany would provide the showcase necessary to market the high-speed technology to the rest of the world.

The reality in Germany is that Transrapid has long been judged overpriced and inappropriate. Plans to build a maglev link between Berlin and Hamburg were announced with much fanfare not long after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

By 2000 it was clear that costs and the difficulties in linking up with conventional rail were creating insurmountable difficulties and the project was shelved.

China was the next big hope. Construction on the only commercially functioning maglev line in the world, linking Shanghai airport with the city's outskirts, began in 2001.

The service, which went into operation in 2004, carries passengers a distance of 30 kilometers in a little over seven minutes, briefly reaching a speed of 350 kilometres an hour.

But even there, plans to extend the link by 19 kilometers into the city center have met with strong opposition from residents along the planned route.

Considerable political capital had gone into the Munich airport link. Edmund Stoiber, who retired as state premier last year after 14 years in office, threw his weight behind it.

"This is an issue that is important for Germany," Chancellor Angela Merkel said recently.

But with the costs running out of control, the federal government decided the time had come to pull the plug.

"The Munich magnetic levitation project has failed," Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee announced in Berlin after a meeting with Stoiber's successor, Guenther Beckstein.

"Today is a black day for high-tech in Germany," Beckstein said.

But the sigh of relief among the politicians was almost audible.

The project was intensely unpopular with many Munich residents, who wanted the money spent on building a much cheaper conventional rail link to the airport that would have integrated with the existing suburban network.

A local petition was being got up to challenge the project through the courts. Environmental activists were also opposed.

But the Transrapid proponents are not giving up. "We have confidence in the concept and will continue to develop it," ThyssenKrupp spokeswoman Anja Gerber said after the decision was announced.

The extension in Shanghai is the consortium's main hope.

Last year the possibility of an 800-kilometre line in Iran was mooted, but given the current state of relations between that country and the West, there is little prospect of it being realized.

Oil-rich Gulf states have also reportedly considered the technology, but there are no firm plans.

After the Munich decision, the Transrapid appears set to follow the fate of the Zeppelin -- another German showpiece -- into the dustbin of exciting but failed high-tech.

DPA with Expatica

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