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There is no question China is determined to cut the arduous 1,463-km, 12-hour rail journey between Beijing and Shanghai to as little as four hours as quickly as possible.

But there is a question whether the best way to lop off the hours is with proven Japanese high-speed rail skills or with experimental German technology.

Zeng Peiyan, minister of the State Development Planning Commission (SPDC), has confirmed that the project, for which preliminary work has already started, will begin in full as early as next year. He promises that China will employ “the most advanced technology in the world.”

But what that technology may be is the subject of much controversy.

Even though road and air transport have bitten deeply into traditional markets, railways remain a vital part of the Chinese communications system.

The rail network, however, which should stretch 70,000 km by 2002, lags behind many countries, particularly in speed. Even with a massive program now under way to upgrade major lines, signaling systems and rolling stock, the goal is to increase speed to a rather pedestrian 140 kph.

Designing a Beijing-Shanghai railway that will travel at around an average 365 kph, therefore, is a definite leap into the dark.

According to the China International Engineering Consulting Corp., which has been entrusted by the government with the final feasibility study, the Beijing-Shanghai rail corridor is one of the country’s busiest passenger and freight routes — with the volume of passengers 5.5 times the national average and cargo 4.3 times.

The current railway could be maintained for another 10 to 20 years, it said, but could meet only half the demand for passenger and freight transport.

A permanent cure must be found to expand the railway’s transport capacity, and that means the new high-speed, dedicated line running before 2010.

In 1998, three academics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences — He Zuoxiu, Xu Guanhua and Yan Luguang — proposed the construction of a “new trunk line” using magnetically levitated trains, which they considered best for a new network of high-speed passenger lines in China.

They argued the top speed of 500 kph possible with this technology far outstrips the 300-350 kph achieved by existing, more conventional high-speed systems.

According to the trio, given China’s vast size, most of the special lines in the 8,000-km high-speed network the government is envisaging will be more than 1,000 km long, giving high-speed maglev trains a huge advantage in attracting passengers.

But the idea has run into firm opposition from experts from the Academy of Railway Sciences under the Ministry of Railways. These train experts have worked out their own proposal for a high-speed line and dismiss magnetic suspension as a “sci-fi dream.”

Railway expert Zang Qijie argues there is no commercially operated maglev railway in the world. On Feb. 5, the German government abandoned its plan to build a 292-km maglev line between Berlin and Hamburg.

The plan was listed in Germany’s 1992 national transportation plan, but the decision ended a 30-year study of maglev railways.

“Though only 292 km, the Berlin-Hamburg magnetic-suspension railway was abandoned,” Zang said.

“The Beijing-Shanghai railway is 1,463 km long. How can the Chinese, who have just achieved a comfortable living, afford a luxury that belongs to futurists and adventurers?”

He also pointed out Japan had conducted research on maglev technology for more than 30 years and its low-temperature, super-conducting technology is more advanced than the German version. “Yet, Japan does not yet operate a single magnetic-suspension railway line,” Zang said.

China’s plan for the construction of several high-speed railways entails a contract worth more than $15 billion, an attractive prospect for the many foreign consortiums seeking a slice of the booming market.

Last November, visiting German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder tried to win the contract for German Railways, hinting at investment of more than $500 million to prove to China its railway science and technology is superior to that of its Japanese and French competitors.

The Japanese government has also been bidding for a key role in the Beijing-Shanghai contract, assuming conventional rail systems will win the nod.

Shinkansen technology, with bullet trains hitting speeds of 300 kph, is certainly slower than that of maglev trains, but the Japanese stress their technology has been fully proved over many years of successful operations.

But they face stiff competition from the French firm Alstom and Germany’s Siemens, whose blueprint is the traditional wheel-rail high-speed railway system primarily based on French TGV technology and German ICE technology.

Experts at Railway Research Institute say if China opts for maglev, all technologies and equipment must be imported; but if the wheel-rail mode is adopted, China may be able to provide its own equipment within five years, which will also promote the development of home-grown related science and technology.