In 1966 maglev train design was pioneered by James Powell and his research colleague Gordon Danby of the Brookhaven National Laboratory. Powell first had the idea while stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Throgs Neck Bridge between the Bronx and Queens.
But both men remain major advocates of the technology, having penned The Fight for Maglev to explain why America should be building a 29,000-mile network. “Maglev 2000 vehicles (the name we have given to our second generation superconducting maglev system) are magnetically levitated and propelled several inches above a guideway, without mechanical contact or friction, with their speed limited only by air drag. They do not have engines, do not burn oil and emit no pollutants and greenhouse gases. They are very safe, energy efficient, quiet and comfortable.”
Sounds good, but so far their calls have fallen on deaf ears. The US has not built a single commercial maglev train route.
The two inventors would probably get a better hearing in China, mind you, and particularly in the city of Changsha, where local officials are gung-ho about the prospects for such trains.
Of course, Changsha isn’t the first city to fete the concept. Shanghai already has a maglev train. It was installed in 2004 and is capable of running at 431km/h (which means it can cover the distance between the airport and the Pudong district of the city in just over seven minutes). However, owing to the awkward location of the city’s maglev terminus, most Shanghainese have viewed the line as something of a white elephant. It has been lossmaking since it opened.
Southern Weekend reports that the bureaucrats in Changsha are looking at a somewhat different proposition. They are promoting a locally-developed low-speed maglev – dubbed the ‘Windchaser’ – as an alternative to subway trains. In May they unveiled plans for a short line that connects the Hunanese city’s high-speed rail station with its local airport. At a cost of Rmb4.2 billion ($680 million), the maglev will travel at a maximum speed of 120km/h, on an 18km stretch of track that Changsha’s officials wants to open by the end of next year.
The only problem, notes Southern Weekend, is that residents in the areas impacted by the proposed route are unhappy. Yang Wei, a homeowner in the Haoting community, is one of those objecting to the train plan. “In addition to blocking our line of sight, how can we withstand its electromagnetic radiation and noise?” he asks.
Such objections grate with local officials, who are keen to commercialise the technology and sell it to other cities in China. The maglev in question has been developed by the city’s CSR Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive Company, which has been working on the technology since 2006. The proposed train has the advantage of being much faster than standard metro trains but also – its proponents claim – much quieter (emitting 64 decibels versus an overland subway train’s 75 decibels, CSR Zhuzhou believes).
Changsha residents aren’t the first to have made protests against proposed maglev lines. Citizens in Beijing have done so too, and they were even supported by Wang Menshu of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. (He is a proponent of high-speed rail, but not of the maglev variety.)
The key point of contention is the radiation issue. Changsha’s environmental agency has said the new train will generate a magnetic field strength of 1.6 microteslas. That is far below China’s ‘recommended value’ of 100 microteslas, a figure that was arrived at in 1998. But as Southern Weekend points out, this is the world’s laxest standard. In Switzerland only 0.2 microteslas is permitted, for instance. Professor Zhao Yufeng – another leading expert in the field – agrees that the radiation levels raise concerns. “According to this standard, the [Changsha] maglev project does not need to set up a protection zone, but if the Swiss standard is used, even 500 metres on each side of the track is likely not enough,” he says.
This is pretty crucial to the debate about the technology’s commercial viability. That’s because if you adjust downwards how many microteslas are deemed safe, it drives up the construction price considerably – since the operator has to buy up more land adjacent to the track. This is one reason that the engineers backing maglevs don’t want to see the acceptable limits lowered at the national level. They are lobbying hard to keep the level at 100 microteslas, while academics like Zhao have tried to get it lowered to 10 microteslas.
The engineer who chaired the environmental panel on Changsha’s maglev project takes a different view on the health risks. “The World Health Organisation’s argument is that they can neither prove it is harmful to the body, nor can they prove it is harmless,” argues Jian Fei.
There are still arguments about whether the project is cost-effective, even when built using the 100 microtesla standard that gives it the cheapest price tag. Local media has looked at the cost of building low-speed maglev lines versus subways. The problem? Conflicting data abounds. But it probably speaks volumes that Changsha’s government has openly admitted that the line will make losses for five to eight years, and that all the relevant parties in the project will agree to share the financial burden according to a pre-determined ratio.
Other cities that are looking at installing similar maglev systems have tried to come up with new ways to bridge the cost gap. For example, Shenzhen is suggesting that visitors will need to pay higher fares than local residents. That maglev line is currently undergoing the final phases of its own feasibility study (it too faces opposition from homeowners). But one commentator said that Shenzhen’s maglev prospects would be highly dependent on whether the Changsha line gets approved, since that city would provide a ‘test run’ for the system.
“The prospect of low-speed maglev depends on the outcome of the Changsha project,” the expert confirmed.
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