SHANGHAI - Want to experience the future? Board at Longyang Road station on Metro Line 2 and eight minutes later the fastest train on earth will deposit you at Pudong International Airport, 19 miles away. It will seem like a dream.
I took the Shanghai Maglev Train during a business trip to China in November. My companions and I rode first class in a white, sheath-like cabin with minimalist (and comfortable) orange seats. The Shanghai Transrapid was smooth, efficient, beautiful, and enigmatic, as befits being one of a kind. Ridership that day was sparse; a round trip costs about $21, but word is the price has gone down, with discounts for travelers flying out of the city the same day.
The train operates on magnetic levitation, "floating" above a track of magnetic coils as, engineless, it reaches a top speed of about 268 miles per hour. The experience is eerie, almost otherworldly; the countryside flashes by, all is quiet. Besides the landscape blur, the key visual is a digital readout of the speed, just below the ceiling at the end of the car.
Test-run with great fanfare on New Year's Eve 2002, when Zhu Rongji and Gerhard Schroeder, China's premier and Germany's chancellor back then, were among the inaugural passengers, the Shanghai Maglev began full-time operation in January 2004. It's based on German technology derived from a venture among China, Siemens, and Thyssenkrupp, and costs $1.33 billion. Other countries are experimenting with maglev trains, including England, Japan, and the United States.
There's a Shanghai Maglev Museum in the basement of the airport station, complete with models of related efforts, huge replicas of the Shanghai Transrapid's magnets, and text in Chinese and English. There are no brochures, but you can buy a model of the train in the museum store. It's worth visiting for the 80-cent fee.
The biggest barrier to maglev growth in Shanghai is cost; in addition, residents are protesting expansion plans, citing fears of radiation from the powerful magnets that undergird the rail bed and line the walls at station entrances.
Nevertheless, the government plans to eventually extend the maglev to Hangzhou, 112 miles south of Shanghai. Per-kilometer construction costs have ballooned from 200 million to 500 million yuan (about $69 million), according to Forbes magazine. But with pressure mounting to spruce up Shanghai for Expo 2010, an extravaganza that the huge, industrious city hopes will at least equal Beijing's 2008 Olympics, progress on the maglev is probable.
Spencer Dodington, a Shanghai resident who runs the travel website luxuryconciergechina.com, says maglev ridership has been disappointing. "Last time I took it to the airport - this past summer - the only passengers were Japanese businessmen who appeared to know Shanghai well," he says by e-mail. "Imagine - 30 fan-wagging, patient businessmen on a stifling hot platform, in their dark blue business suits."
The weather for my ride was brisk, the businessmen on board few and far between. The ride - simultaneously sumptuous, austere, and thrilling - was unique, one I'll definitely repeat should I revisit Shanghai.
Carlo Wolff, a Cleveland-based freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.