Foreign Maglev Breakthrough Leaves U.S. in Dust

Newsday editorial on China's new maglev train.

Published: 06-Jan-2003

America's hopes of being the world leader in wheelless, high-speed magnetic-levitation trains appear to have been dashed by the Chinese, who took officials on a ride last Tuesday between the city of Shanghai and its airport on the world's first operating maglev railway.

The system was developed by a consortium of German companies, not any of the U.S. firms working on similar technologies. Maglev was once viewed as a promising business opportunity for Long Island's Grumman Corp. to replace its waning defense contracts, before it was merged into Northrop Corp.

There are several major maglev projects on U.S. drawing boards, including one for the Washington-Baltimore region, although most are not expected to be operational for a decade. A demonstration project at Old Dominion University in Virginia is behind schedule.

But the Shanghai maglev railway car, suspended from a magnetic field on an elevated track, was ready: It made the 19-mile round- trip from the financial district to the airport in 14 minutes at speeds of up to 266 miles per hour; by car, the trip routinely takes an hour. And the train could be the forerunner of a more extensive system connecting major Chinese cities.

It's too early for U.S. companies to agonize over opportunities lost, however. While the German firms seem to have a head start in developing the technology, it's not at all sure they will get the additional work in China.

Some analysts suspect the $1.3-billion project is intended more as a showpiece, to impress visitors with Shanghai's modernity. Others note that, in order to win the contract, the German firms had to agree to let the Chinese in on some on the technology involved - and China is developing its own maglev design. It has used that approach in the past - learning how others do things and then doing them for itself - to build up its own manufacturing base.

If China does that this time, Shanghai might aptly describe not just the site of the project but the fate of the German technology: Shanghaied.

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