China's State Council is considering at least four bids for the high-speed train, with the Japanese in the running When Zhu Rongji joined German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder last New Year's Eve for the first commercial ride of a magnetic-levitated (maglev) train, the manufacturers, Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, had big smiles on their faces. When Mr Zhu told German television the maglev would be used on two 300km routes in China, they thought that they had hit the jackpot. But, seven months on, those high hopes have turned to doubt and uncertainty. Mr Zhu, the strongest supporter of the maglev in the central government, left office in March and the 20km route between Shanghai International Airport and an underground rail station in Pudong is not running because of technical problems. Last month the government of North Rhine-Westphalia announced it was scrapping a plan to use the maglev on a 79km route. While negotiations are under way in several German cities to use the maglev, no deal has been signed and it remains an experiment and not a proven technology. The State Council is considering at least four bids for the 1,300km Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, on which work should begin soon if it is to be completed for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The bids are from the Japanese Shinkansen (Bullet Train), the French TGV, the German ICE and China's Ministry of Railways. Asked if the State Council was also considering a bid by the maglev, a spokeswoman for the Shanghai Magnetic Transport Development Company (SMTDC) said this was an issue for the central government to decide. She declined further comment. 'The Ministry of Railways is strongly opposed to the maglev,' said one European consultant who has been following the bidding process. 'It wants to use its own technology for high-speed railways in China. Without [Mr] Zhu, the maglev has lost its strongest supporter in Beijing and has no-one comparable in the new government. 'The Shinkansen is favourite. It is commercially proven, has been running for 40 years and makes a profit. The Japanese government will provide low-interest loans for the financing. It is pushing hard to win the contract. The maglev is untested and more expensive. It does not have a chance for the Beijing-Shanghai route. 'Cities in Germany and the United States are looking at it but none have committed themselves. This is a big handicap.' It was in June 1998, at a meeting of the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing, that Mr Zhu first proposed using the maglev for the Beijing-Shanghai route. In a study released at the end of 1998, the academy supported this idea. With Mr Zhu's strong backing, the SMTDC built the track and stations in Shanghai, with Siemens, ThyssenKrupp and Transrapid International supplying the operating system and technology. They said by next year, it would carry 10 million passengers a year to the airport, rising to 20 million in 2010. But things have not worked well. The service ran for two weeks and stopped. Sars delayed resumption of operations and then the company said tests were still being carried out, with commercial operations not starting until next year. Many people think the Pudong project is unviable because the tickets cost 150 yuan (HK$140.56) and 300 yuan, against 20 to 30 yuan for a bus and about 100 yuan for a taxi to the centre of the city, while the maglev goes only to the Longyang Road underground rail entrance, from where commuters can choose the underground, buses or taxis, making it inconvenient for those with heavy luggage, old people or young children. The central government has been discussing the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line since 1994. Costing more than US$20 billion, it is an enormous decision, fraught with political, diplomatic and economic consequences. Awarding such a prestigious project to the Shinkansen, whatever its merits, may be too much for a government that is traditionally anti-Japanese. With Mr Zhu's departure, the Ministry of Railways has stepped up the pressure on the State Council to reject the foreign bids and choose domestic technology. Last November, it tested its China Star, which reached 310km an hour on the Qinhuangdao-Shenyang route, a record for a Chinese train. The consultant said: 'It is arguing that China should not spend money on foreign technology and systems when it can develop its own. It has been increasing investment in order to compete better with the foreigners.' A European diplomat said the makers of the maglev argued that, while the initial construction cost was higher than the others, the running costs would be substantially lower. The diplomat said: 'The level of technology transfer is a major element in the bids. How much is the foreign partner prepared to give the Chinese? According to one rumour, ThyssenKrupp will sell the entire maglev technology to China but I doubt it,' The three foreign bidders for the Beijing-Shanghai line each have a strong case. They have proven technology and their governments will offer concessional financing, looking not only at this line but possible future lines from Beijing to Tianjin and Shenyang, Shanghai to Hangzhou, and Nanjing and Chengdu to Chongqing. TGV will point at its expanding network in France, which has the best rail network in Europe, as well as contracts in Spain and South Korea. The Shinkansen has only one foreign client, between Taipei and Kaohsiung in Taiwan. But it earns 45 per cent of the revenue of the Japanese railway system with 30 per cent of the trains.