PROMOTERS of magnetic levitation technology in China celebrated the launch of the world’s first fare-paying high speed regular maglev service on December 29 between Shanghai Airport and Pudong. Maglev vehicles formed of five sections depart at 20min intervals, reaching a maximum speed of 430 km/h on their 71/2min journey over the 31 km to Longyang Road in Pudong. Single tickets are 75 yuan in economy class and 150 yuan in first; return fares are double.

The service initially operates between 08.30 and 12.30 every day, but during the Chinese New Year celebrations on January 22-28 operations were extended until 17.30. Transrapid says three vehicles are used to run the service, which will be stepped up gradually as more are delivered. The target is to run at 10min intervals for 18h each day.

But the promoters’ joy was shortlived. The real prize was always seen as long-distance high speed maglev routes between China’s major cities. Most attractive was the planned 1337 km line from Beijing to Shanghai, where a battle between maglev and steel-wheel technology has been raging for years. The issue now appears to have been finally resolved; the Beijing Times reported that on January 7 the State Council had approved a plan for medium and long term development of the national rail network which envisages that Beijing - Shanghai will be built with steel-wheel technology.

Reasons cited for the decision include maglev’s incompatibility with the existing network. Hua Dehong, Deputy Director-General of the High Speed Railway Office at the Ministry of Railways, had pointed out at Eurailspeed 2002 that over 60% of trains on the existing route serve other areas. Also militating against maglev was the difficulty of building stations allowing easy interchange. Perhaps most decisive of all was the cost factor, which at 300m to 400m yuan per km was around twice that of a conventional high speed line. The real fight between high speed train suppliers in Germany, France and Japan can now begin.