Shanghai's maglev passenger traffic lower than expected

Passengers give city's high-speed wonder a pass in favour of cheaper and more convenient metro

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 December, 2012, 4:35am

Shanghai's 30-kilometre maglev railway has seen its business so pummelled by the expansion of the city's metro system it is increasingly becoming a white elephant, leaving city officials red-faced.

The world's first commercial magnetic levitation railway, built at a cost of about 10 billion yuan, was touted by Shanghai as the envy of the world and proof of its commitment to the latest and best in technology.

When the line linking Pudong airport and Longyang Road - in the suburbs and next to the Zhangjiang industrial zone - opened at the end of 2002, it launched China's high-speed-railway dream. State leaders at first planned to build a national maglev railway network.

The technology for the line was developed by a German consortium comprising ThyssenKrupp, Siemens and Adtranz, and allows trains to reach a top speed of more than 500km/h.

However, the central government baulked at the high cost of maglev and at concerns about its safety, and decided to use a different, domestically developed technology when construction of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line began in the first half of 2008.

A planned Shanghai-Hangzhou maglev line was also put on ice by the central and local governments amid scepticism over the project's feasibility.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Shanghai's maglev has not been well received by locals or tourists, with the load factor on one trip early this month appearing to be as low as 10 per cent.

Others who have taken the maglev recently said it appeared to operating at less than 20 per cent of capacity.

A one-way ticket sells for 50 yuan (HK$61.50) and the operator offers a 20 per cent discount on round-trip tickets. A similar discount is offered on one-way tickets to passengers due to board a plane at Pudong airport or those who have disembarked from a plane.

Shanghai extended its Metro Line 2 to Pudong airport before the World Expo in 2010 and the metro trip only costs 10 yuan. Passengers using the metro line are also spared the bother of transferring from the maglev to the metro or other forms of transport to complete their journey.

The maglev operator won't release its latest passenger figures, but local media have reported that it could be posting a loss of 600 million to 700 million yuan a year.

Shanghai was at first extremely upbeat about the maglev, supposed to be the world's fastest train, believing it would become a commercial success because the No1 title would make tickets easy to sell.

A clutch of state-owned companies including Baosteel and Shenergy funded the line's construction.

Government and corporate sources said technical barriers had to be overcome during construction of the maglev line.

Shortly after its inauguration, then Shanghai Communist Party boss Chen Liangyu - who fell from grace in a pension fund scandal in 2006 - told a government conference that Shanghai should be proud of the maglev because the city had acquired valuable know-how in applying the technology.

The German companies would have to co-ordinate with Shanghai scientists and engineers to develop any new maglev project, he said, according to an official who attended the conference.

If Chen's remarks were anything to go by, Shanghai expected to share in the profits as its German partners developed maglev projects around the world.

However, the city has yet to profit from that expertise, which has never been applied to another maglev project.

Its own maglev train, which used to run at a top speed of 430km/h, runs at a maximum speed of 300km/h for most of the day for safety and energy-efficiency reasons.

Passengers can travel at the top speed only from 9am to 10.45am and from 3pm to 4.45pm.

State-owned China Eastern Airlines is offering free maglev tickets to woo customers. Sources said the company was encouraged to buy maglev tickets in bulk to boost traffic on the city's modernisation "showcase".