In 1986, my parents took the family to Vancouver for Expo’86, the World Exposition on Transportation and Communications. That trip perhaps began an interest in these two areas which would follow me to this day: I still find people movers, high speed trains and airplanes fascinating, while I ended up working in the telecommunications business as a professional career. In 1986, idealism for new forms of transport was running high, especially those using magnetic levitation. While Boeing featured a giant 747 nose, France a mockup of the then new conventional TGV train and our own Canadian effort brought Vancouver a brand new SkyTrain automated rapid transit system, the future was trains running on the power of magnets, free of wheels and friction.
Japan demonstrated their High Speed Surface Transport concept, with a working maglev transporting visitors a very short distance. But it was the German effort, the TransRapid system which captured my attention. I read the pamphlet, detailing the TransRapid concept as envisioned by MBB/Thyssen Henschel, over and over, back to front. Of course, almost every maglev project proposed, even in Germany itself, never materialized. That is, until the Shanghai Maglev in 2004.
I guess I now hold the unusual nerd-party trivia record of riding all two commercial maglev systems currently in operation, the Japanese HSST-03 Linimo at Aichi, built for Expo 2005, and the German TransRapid08 maglev in Shanghai. This morning, we took the Shanghai Metro to Longyuan Road station, which allowed us to switch to the new Maglev line to Pudong Airport. This line services a 30km stretch at 430km/h, although today it runs only at 300km/h during non-peak hours. The Maglev station seems a little sad, with a few travellers each run. Quiet as it is this Friday morning, the train is an impressive achievement. Boarding and seating is similar to a TGV or ICE, with airplane style seating. The eight minute journey begins slowly, then accelerates to TGV speeds within a seconds. While a little more rough than I imagined after years of reading about maglevs, the acceleration pushes you into your seat, as if flying just above the ground.
As we leave Shanghai, and China overall to go home via Hong Kong, I am left with the impression of the country being a vast and diverse place, still changing. It is a country known for ancient treasures yet wants and celebrates a maglev train: Of course the first one would be built here. As friends noted, they moved here because China was changing and always different, and it’s easy to see why they’re excited to live here. China has been eye opening, exhausting, intriguing and exciting.