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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

German Mag-Lev Train

Air Date: Week of

Germany is investing four billion dollars on a new transportation system; the high-speed magnetic levitation train will run between Berlin and Hamburg. Michael Lawton reports from northern Germany on momentum for the train, and what its critics are saying.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Germany is spending 6 billion Marks, or about $4 billion, of public money, to build a new transport system. It's called the Trans-Rapid Magnetic Levitation Train, and by the year 2005 it'll carry passengers between Berlin and Hamburg at speeds of up to 260 miles per hour. Its supporters argue the train is a non-polluting alternative to traveling by automobile and air. But German environmental activists aren't so sure. They say the so-called Mag-Lev train will damage the competitiveness of existing rail transportation, and they question claims that it's really less polluting. Michael Lawton reports.

(Ambient conversation)

LAWTON: An excited group of tourists sit and wait for the Trans-Rapid Magnetic Levitation Train to get underway at its test track in the small town of Lathon in northern Germany. A ride on the 25-mile-long track has become one of the few major attractions of the flatlands near the Dutch border. So far, the Trans-Rapid has carried 300,000 people, and it hasn't even gone into commercial service yet.

(A man's voice over a microphone)

LAWTON: Herr Hugenberg is our guide. He looks like everybody's favorite uncle: white-haired and reliable, and he sounds a bit bored at telling these facts over and over again. The perfect choice to make us think that the Trans-Rapid is very normal. The train lifts itself just one centimeter from the ground and we're off. The acceleration is smooth and easy, and going around curves at high speed is quite comfortable. The slightest excitement enters Herr Hugenberg's voice as we reach 260 miles, 420 kilometers an hour.

(Hugenberg's voice continues)

LAWTON: The trouble with high-speed transport is that if it's any good, it doesn't feel like high speed. Of course, this is only a prototype and it's noisier and it rattles more than the production models will later, but even so you don't get a sense of traveling that fast.

(Voice and surrounding sounds fade out)

LAWTON: The consortium of German companies which has developed the Trans-Rapid has been working at it initially in competition and then in cooperation for around 20 years. Big names like Siemens, Thyssen, and Daimler-Benz, have invested millions in the technology, which has certain clear advantages over more conventional systems. Electromagnets make the train float over the track. there are no wheels so there's no friction loss there. And the Trans-Rapid doesn't carry a motor. The electric induction coils which drive the cars are in the track, so the train is light and needs relatively little energy to power it. But all this high-tech wizardry will be very expensive, altogether 9 billion marks, $6 billion, to build the 190-mile stretch between Berlin and Hamburg. Hans-Christoph Atzpodien, chief executive of the company which will build the Trans-Rapid, thinks it's money well spent.

ATZPODIEN: Between Berlin and Hamburg we need a new high-speed track because we will have a huge increase of passengers between these two cities. We can be quicker in connecting Hamburg's main station to the center of Berlin. We need only 60 minutes, and that again means we get more people from the motorways and from the short haul air traffic to the environmentally positive Trans-Rapid than any other railway alternative would do. That is the point.

LAWTON: But the environmentalists in Germany are united against the Trans-Rapid. They argue why that massive investment when the conventional train is doing so well? The railroad already goes into every sizable town, and the speed on the major routes is up to 250 kilometers an hour. The latest inter-city express train will even manage speeds of up to 300 kilometers, or 190 miles an hour. With improvements to the existing track, this train could run between Hamburg and Berlin almost as fast as the Trans-Rapid, but for a ninth of the cost. But what about the Trans-Rapid's environmental advantages. Walter Schmidt, of German Friends of the Earth, says the consortium's calculations are too optimistic.

SCHMIDT: It is not as energy efficient as the Trans-Rapid people always say. Even at a velocity of 300 kilometers per hour, it consumes 25% more energy than the inter-city train of the new generation. It is basically a bad amalgamation of a train and a plane. Whereas the plane flies at an altitude of 9 or 12 kilometers, the Trans-Rapid system is like an aeroplane that flies just slightly over the ground, and it has to fight against this air friction, and loses a lot of energy just by cruising through that air friction.

LAWTON: And that air friction is the main objection of the people along the route. There's already considerable opposition from residents who say they don't want to live next to the Trans-Rapid as it pushes aside the air at over 400 kilometers an hour.

(Sounds of the train)

LAWTON: Which will sound something like that. And the Trans-Rapid business plan foresees one of those every 10 minutes in each direction, carrying 40,000 passengers a day. That's another area where the critics say the industry is exaggerating. At the moment, for example, the air route sells just 400 tickets a day. All the same, Hans-Christoph Atzpodien, says that even if the train can't turn a profit, it's still important to build it.

ATZPODIEN: Only if a transportation system is commercially used in the country where it has been developed, then it can be subject to selling to other countries, and that is the same thing true for the Trans-Rapid.

LAWTON: Well, now the government has approved it and the Trans-Rapid will probably be built. So what are its export chances? Ross Kapon is executive director of the American National Association of Railroad Passengers. He thinks the German environmentalists have it right. He says for the US, too, it would be more cost effective and make more environmental sense to simply upgrade the train. But if, as its operators expect, the Trans-Rapid proves to be a success between Hamburg and Berlin, wouldn't that make him change his mind?

KAPON: Well that's the big if. Sure, if you get something that's a proven product and it works and it does for a reasonable cost what its promoters say it will, then certainly. I mean, one of the reasons that many people are promoting high-speed rail in America is precisely because it works so well in places like Germany. You do not have to throw away proven technology to get something that looks modern and acts modern.

(Sounds of the train)

LAWTON: The Trans-Rapid has been going backwards and forwards up here on its test track for the last 12 years. Its advocates say it's time for it to be doing something useful for a change. But for all the high technology, the environmentalists think the Trans-Rapid is a solution to a problem which doesn't exist. For Living on Earth, this is Michael Lawton in northern Germany.



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