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December 18, 2014

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Shanghai’s maglev: Flying with both feet on the ground

A reporter’s first-person account of speeding through Shanghai’s outskirts on an adrenaline-laced maglev ride

Image

MARSHALL ALLEN / LAS VEGAS SUN

The Shanghai Transrapid maglev train at a station in Shanghai, Nov. 9, 2009.

Shanghai Maglev postcards

Launch slideshow »

Shanghai Maglev

The Shanghai Transrapid maglev train at a station in Shanghai, Nov. 9, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Shanghai Maglev

Sun reporter Marshall Allen shot this video of the Shanghai maglev.

Beyond the Sun

There’s something about 267 mph that gets the adrenaline pumping.

I’m speeding through the outskirts of Shanghai on a maglev train and watching a digital speedometer — measuring kilometers per hour — tick rapidly upward: 146, 147, 148 ...

I’m in the maglev’s front car with six Japanese tourists. They’re wearing matching “I love Shanghai” T-shirts and staring slack-jawed at the speedometer. It’s climbing faster than I can take notes and is now up to 225.

That’s 139 miles per hour and it’s been only about a minute since we left the station in Pudong, the financial district in Shanghai, for the 19-mile trip to the airport. This is a demonstration line, opened in 2003 to show off the speed and safety of the German-designed magnetic-levitation technology.

I was curious to ride it for myself because a similar maglev train has been proposed between Las Vegas and Anaheim, Calif., — that, and I’ve never flown with my feet on the ground.

The changing scenery is whipping past us outside and the speedometer is rising like a rocket. The Japanese are pointing at the digital readout — 353, 354, 355 ... — and rising from their seats in excitement.

The speed tops out at 430 kph — that’s 267 mph, faster than a Formula One racer — and the tourists are jumping up and down, slapping high fives and posing for pictures.

The speed is infectious. As we’re cruising I trade cameras with the Japanese and we take pictures together, and we peer through a window into the spacious cockpit ahead of us. In front of the pilot, through the windshield, the train is inhaling the elevated guideway.

I wonder how this scene will translate across the Mojave Desert. Two high-speed train proposals are competing for the business between Las Vegas and Southern California. The DesertXpress is a traditional steel-wheels-on-steel-rails line that would travel at about 150 mph from Las Vegas to Victorville, Calif., about 85 miles from Los Angeles. Estimated cost: $4 billion.

The maglev boasts sexier technology and a better destination — near Disneyland — but its estimated price tag is $12 billion.

It’s unknown whether the maglev would ever promise true love. But it invokes infatuation.

Heartbeats quickened on the loading platform when the maglev glided like an eel into the Shanghai station. The train has an angled nose, teal and peach racing stripes and the aura of a creature at the top of the food chain. Even sitting still, it’s the king of the jungle. Passengers gathered and stared, took cell phone photos and gawked as the train’s cooling system seethed. Old Chinese men giggled like schoolboys.

The maglev idles about half an inch from the platform and makes nary a sound when it’s launched. There’s no friction so it slides out of the station, propelled by the reaction between its magnetic undercarriage and a magnetized coil that runs along its track. The acceleration and braking seem effortless.

There’s no engine, so it’s relatively quiet inside the maglev. The train’s whir grows as it reaches top speed, as in an airplane. It’s not silent, but is never so loud that it would hamper conversation.

Boom! I jump in my seat when our maglev passes its counterpart on the opposing track. The combined speed — 534 mph — is more than two-thirds the speed of sound. We bank around a turn and the train leans to the right.

The ride is stable, though as it reaches top speed the train rocks side to side. You don’t feel like you’re flying until you look outside and see power poles flipping past the windows. A highway runs parallel to the elevated train for a portion of the eight-minute ride. The cars and trucks may be driving 70 mph but the train glides past them like they’re Tonka toys rolling down the sidewalk.

After traveling at top speed, the maglev slows as it nears our destination and now feels like a jog. That’s when I see we’re still going 155 mph.

Thirty minutes after my first maglev ride I’m more excited than when I was on the train. And days later I’m even more impressed. Does it make sense for Las Vegas? It may not make sense in Shanghai! But it’s sensational cocktail conversation.

The politicians and business elites will determine whether the DesertXpress or maglev ever shuttles passengers between Las Vegas and Southern California. But if Las Vegas historically spares no expense for a spectacle, then there’s little debate about which proposal has more sizzle. For excitement, a levitated rocket ride to Disneyland trumps an iron horse — even a fast one — to Victorville.

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