Shanghai – Hangzhou maglev train shelved

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Didn’t we just talk about pork? The maglev train that was to connect Shanghai and Hangzhou appears headed to the dustbin of history. The project has been officially put on hold due to radiation concerns according to Xinhua.

“The project has been suspended in line with the arrangements of the municipal government,” said a spokesman with the government of Minhang District in Shanghai’s southern suburbs. 

An official with the Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress confirmed a major reason for suspending the project was the magnetic radiation concerns raised by residents living along the proposed route. “The government is working on the issue,” said the official on condition of anonymity.

Approved by the central government in March 2006, the US$4.5 billion maglev train track was to be 175 km long with trains reaching speeds of 450 km per hour. Officials were hoping to have construction completed by the 2010 World Expo to be held in Shanghai. But with the introduction of a new series of bullet trains between the two cities, and a general improving of rail infrastructure that allowed trains speeds to increase, the maglev train perhaps came to be seen as what it always was, one giant piece of political pork. Detroit, United States’ little used monorail system comes to mind. 

Shanghai Daily’s Wang Lixin had this to say about the situation:

Speed appears to be the only advantage a Maglev enjoys, but even this has been much exaggerated. Experts say that a new high speed railway link between the two cities, at half the Maglev investment, would add only four to seven minutes to the travel time on the Maglev.

There is also concern that there will not be enough passengers. Railway sources suggest the nonstop trains from Shanghai to Hangzhou make up only a small percentage of the passenger trains traveling to Hangzhou from the direction of Shanghai.

As Maglev does not link up with the existing rail network, most passengers would probably be reluctant to take the trouble to go the extra way just for the sake of catching the Maglev.

A sleek Maglev can certainly impress overseas visitors at the six-month Expo to be held 2010, but the government is clearly waking up to the Maglev’s economic viability as a means of transport after the high-profile event.

For a government that moved millions of people for the Three Gorges Dam project, suspending the train over residents’ concerns about radiation, something that itself is open to speculation, seems a bit farfetched. What is more likely is that the new leadership in Shanghai – put in place following a pension fund scandal last September – combined with a more fiscally pragmatic central government saw the economic light of day and stepped in to avoid an expensive and little used rail system.