Barred from a hearing on track options, they say their plan for the BeijingShanghai link would save billions As official debate over the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail project enters its final stages, two prominent mainland rail experts say they have been barred from proposing an alternative plan they claim would save the country billions of yuan. The hearing last week, organised by the central-government controlled China International Engineering Consulting Corporation (CIECC), was meant to be one of the last chances for experts to put forward their views before a report is submitted to the State Council advising it on which technology should be adopted for the 1,300km railway line. Many hope it will be ready for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. But Hua Yunzhang, retired chief engineer of the Shanghai Railway Department, and Yao Zuozhou, retired deputy head of the Professional Design Institute of the Railway Ministry, said they were surprised and unhappy that they were barred from proposing their ideas in the debate. Both were involved in the initial phases of consultation on the project in the mid-1990s. Both Mr Hua, 92, and Mr Yao, 82, said they were told by visiting corporation officials last week that they should not attend the hearing because they were too old. The officials told them their opinions would be relayed at the meeting. 'But they didn't understand what I was saying,' Mr Hua said. 'How can they put forward my idea?' Quoting anonymous sources, the Wen Wei Po in Hong Kong reported yesterday that authorities planned to start construction next year with a completion target of 2008, although this has not been confirmed officially. The media has been keen to speculate but the mainland has not yet indicated whether it would adopt one of the conventional wheel-and-track options offered by the Japanese Shinkansen 'bullet' train system, the French TGV, the German ICE - whose trains run at speeds of up to 300km/h - or an alternative German magnetic levitation proposal. Mainland media said the trial of the rival China Star domestic system, which reached a maximum 321.5km/h on the Qinhuangdao-Shenyang route, had encountered technical problems. Mr Hua said he wanted to propose using tilting-train technology, which is a much cheaper option costing 20 billion yuan (HK$18.8 billion) compared with the conventional high-speed railway now favoured by the Ministry of Railways, which some experts estimate would cost up to 300 billion yuan. Trains using the tilting-train technology, widely used in Sweden, Italy and Finland as well as in the existing Guangzhou-Shenzhen rail link, could reach a maximum speed of 240km/h. Tilting trains have carriages that lean on bends, allowing faster speed, and are relatively cheap because they can run on existing rail tracks, saving the cost involved in building a new track. The existing rail journey between Beijing and Shanghai has a journey time of 14 hours, with a maximum speed of 140km/h. If the conventional high-speed rail system is adopted, the journey time would be reduced to about five hours. Both Mr Hua and Mr Yao accused the Ministry of Railways of monopolising the debate and said the organiser of the hearing, CIECC, was also dominated by their cronies. They said the project should be opened up for public debate, instead of being limited to a small group of experts and officials hand-picked by the Ministry of Railways. '[The exclusion of alternative opinions] won't bring any benefits to our people and will have a grave impact on the country,' Mr Hua said. When contacted by the South China Morning Post last week, a CIECC spokeswoman said that the company would not accept media interviews on any matter related to the rail project, nor would she explain why Mr Hua and Mr Yao were barred from the hearing. Repeated phone calls to the Ministry of Railways' High Speed Railway Office went unanswered. Mr Hua said he supported the eventual adoption of the magnetic levitation technology for the Beijing-Shanghai line, although it should first be tested on shorter lines and its adoption should wait until passenger volumes justify the cost. Colin Divall, a professor of railway studies at the University of York in Britain, said the magnetic levitation train would be a 'radical option' because the technology was extremely costly and still largely unproven. Those opposed to the scheme in China pointed out that apart from the Shanghai airport link, there were no other commercial installations in the world. The US$1.25 billion Maglev built for Shanghai by Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, can travel the 30km between the city's Pudong airport and its financial centre in eight minutes, at a speed of up to 427km/h. It started trial runs in May but stopped running after two weeks because of technical problems. It will be re-opened on weekends from September 20. Rail experts from Britain said that if China spent a large sum of money on a new high-speed track at this stage, it was unlikely that it would be replaced later with a Maglev track. But they said if the tilting technology was adopted using existing rail tracks, then the building of a Maglev track was still viable in the future. Professor Divall said while the high-speed option was proven and reliable, it required more disruption to the environment because new tracks would have to be laid over the line's full length. He said the French were considering using tilting-system trains so that they could travel at speed but continue to use an ordinary line for most of the journey.