Transrapid Technology Headed for China?
Der Spiegel Online: March 28, 2008
Germany's magnetic levitation dreams came to an end on Thursday. Now, news reports indicate that the locally developed technology may be sold off to China. German commentators wonder who is to blame for the debacle.
The Transrapid is history. Here, a model of the maglev train with Munich's Frauenkirche in the background.
It was supposed to be a prestige project, elevating Munich into the technological elite. A magnetic levitation train line connecting the city's train station with the airport was to make the Bavarian capital the envy of the world.
On Thursday, though, Bavarian politicians decided the so-called Transrapid wasn't worth the €3 billion new calculations showed it would have cost. And now it looks like ThyssenKrupp, part of the consortium which developed the maglev train, may be interested in selling the technology to China.
According to the online version of Die Welt on Friday, ThyssenKrupp is interested in beginning negotiations with the Chinese government in the coming weeks preparatory to a technology transfer. Citing only "company insiders," the report says that both the sale of licenses and the complete sale of the technology are being considered. China is home to the only commercially operating Transrapid line in the world.
ThyssenKrupp is responsible for the train's propulsion system, which involves a complex arrangement of electromagnets which both levitates the train -- eliminating friction -- and propels the train forward. China has eagerly tried to create a maglev train of its own, but has had difficulty copying the Transrapid propulsion system and is thus interested in acquiring the technology.
According to Die Welt, a spokeswoman from ThyssenKrupp denied that the company is considering such a sale. Chinese experts on Friday, however, said that it was unlikely that China would be interested in buying the expensive technology.
But whatever happens to the Transrapid technology, which was developed in part with some €2.4 billion in German tax revenues invested over the past three decades, its future in Germany looks grim. A number of other planned Transrapid projects have failed in the past and now, after the Munich announcement, German politicians on Thursday and Friday are busy pointing fingers at each other in an effort to avoid blame for the calamity.
But it is the Bavarian conservative party Christian Social Union (CSU) which will likely take the greatest hit. Already, the CSU's floor leader in the federal parliament, Peter Ramsauer, has blasted party leader Günther Beckstein for making a "head-over-heels" decision to cancel the project. The end of the Transrapid, which was to be a legacy of long-time Bavarian governor and former CSU leader Edmund Stoiber -- who retired last year -- has cast doubt on the CSU's handling of the project.
The Social Democrats and the Greens, both of whom were against the Transrapid project from the start, couldn't resist gloating on Thursday and Friday. "Günther Beckstein and Edmund Stoiber acted like amateurs," said SPD politician Klaas Hübner. "The Bavarian state government's strategy of pushing more and more of the cost onto the federal government didn't work."
German papers on Friday also take a look at the failure of the Transrapid in Munich.
Center-left Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Friday writes:
"The Transrapid, as a means of connecting point A with point B, is a (technology) that is difficult to integrate into a Europe that is already well-served by railways -- and it is simply too expensive. The advantages offered by the Transrapid over a high-speed traditional rail link are not enough to outweigh the high price tag. That was true of (earlier Transrapid projects that also failed) and it was true of the Munich project. One doesn't throw €3 billion out the window just to show the world what one is capable of building. Especially not when comparatively important transportation projects are currently delayed for lack of funding."
"It is not difficult to figure out who really needed and could profit from the Transrapid line to the Munich airport. It certainly wasn’t for the family flying to the Canary Islands for a vacation. Such fliers have to check in two hours before takeoff, have to pray that their flight takes off on time and, if they aren't lucky, have to change planes in Nuremberg or Stuttgart. The time it took to get to the airport was the least of their concerns. But for business travellers who show up at the airport 10 minutes before takeoff with no luggage to check, it was important. Why one should make short flights even more attractive is a question that the Bavarian government must answer -- especially given its rhetorical commitment to combating climate change."
Conservative daily Die Welt on Friday writes:
"The failure of the Transrapid began well before Thursday's announcement. The history of this 70-year-old invention is one of hesitation, the failure of transportation policy and of technophobia. There have been a number of promising possibilities to build the Transrapid. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, when there was just an aged rail link between Berlin and Hamburg. But the project failed again and again because of the cost and, most of all, because of the prevailing attitude in the country."
"From an economic point of view, the failure of the Transrapid is bearable. The fates of Siemens, ThyssenKrupp and German industry are not dependent on the technology's success. But had this once-in-a-century project been built, it would have been good for Germany as a technological leader."
"Instead, the failure shows what German's industrial policy is missing: resolution and skilful promotion. If this lesson is learned from the Transrapid debacle, then there might be a silver lining after all."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"From a technology standpoint, the magnetic levitation train was genius -- economically, unfortunately, it was stillborn. When the first concrete plans for a Transrapid link were developed at the end of the 1970s, West Germany was already crisscrossed by a comprehensive and modern track network. The ubiquitous presence of the rail network as a highly flexible and affordable transportation option stood in the way of the maglev's success in Germany from the very beginning. But there are some politicians and industrialists who still don't want to recognize that fact. Were there ever a niche market for the Transrapid, it was filled by ICE high-speed trains and by the rapidly declining price of air travel."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung focuses on the political failures that led to the Transrapid debacle:
"Politicians and industrialists are now passing the buck back and forth: Nobody wants to be seen as guilty for the flop. It is hard enough to believe that construction companies and the manufacturer of the Transrapid erred by so much in their cost calculations. That, though, was likely little more than cynicism: Politicians, primarily the CSU under Edmund Stoiber, wanted the project at all costs. In such an atmosphere, such a non-binding offer could have been expected."
"Both Minister of Transport Wolfgang Tiefensee and the Bavarian CSU leadership claimed on Thursday that they were surprised by the sudden rise in costs and that they were unwilling to spend yet more money on the Transrapid link to the Munich airport. That is a convenient excuse. Everyone was aware just how unreliable the earlier cost estimates were."
ThyssenKrupp Mulls Sale of Transrapid Technology to China
Deutsche Welle: 28.03.2008
Transrapid: It's the end of the German line for the high-tech Transrapid
Germany's ThyssenKrupp is considering selling its Transrapid high-speed maglev technology to China after a planned track in Munich was unexpectedly scrapped due to spiraling costs, sparking heated debate in the country.
ThyssenKrupp may take its prestigious monorail maglev technology that has trains speeding on a magnetic cushion at 500 kilometers an hour to China after a surprise decision to axe plans for a track linking Munich's airport and the city center due to ballooning costs.
According to a report by Welt Online, Dusseldorf-based ThyssenKrupp is set to negotiate a deal with the Chinese government that could involve the sale to Beijing of either only the license to the company's patented propulsion engine or the technology itself.
Maglev train in Shanghai: The world's only commercial magnetic levitation train is in Shanghai
With a Transrapid shuttle between downtown Shanghai and the city's airport, China is the only country in the world to use the system commercially. They currently only have the rights to construct the train cars, but purchasing additional rights from ThyssenKrupp would mean they could produce complete Transrapid systems and sell them elsewhere.
However, it would also be necessary to obtain the control technology developed by Siemens, as well as the engine know-how.
Chinese expert says deal unlikely
A Chinese transport export on Friday however said that such a deal between Beijing and ThyssenKrupp was "unlikely." Xie Weida, deputy director of the Railway Institute at Shanghai's Tongji University, said the core technology would be extremely expensive but conceded that buying it could benefit China.
A planned extension of the Shanghai Transrapid line by World Expo, which the city will host in 2010, was recently postponed by Mayor Han Zheng.
According to the Welt report, an eight- or nine-figure deal between Beijing and ThyssenKrupp could potentially spare the 220 jobs in Germany that are threatened by the closure of the project.
"I cannot guarantee that we will not lose out to China," said Thomas Schlenz, the head of ThyssenKrupp's works council. "There is a danger that they can pick up this technology and run with it." He added that about 1,000 new jobs would have been created in Germany had the Transrapid plan been carried out.
Klaus-Heiner Roehl from the IW economic research institute, however, said that it will likely "be difficult to sell something abroad that was rejected at home."
The blame game
Transrapid accident scene: Human error caused the 2006 accident
Six months ago, the heads of Siemens, ThyssenKrupp and Hochtief construction group had said the plan to build the Transrapid in Munich would total 1.85 billion euros ($2.9 billion), but federal Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee announced on Thursday, March 27, that costs had risen unexpectedly to nearly double, making the venture too pricy to continue with.
The hope was that a successful Transrapid in Germany would provide the showcase necessary to market the high-speed technology to the rest of the world.
News of the decision to scrap the flagship train link in Munich developed by ThyseenKrupp and Siemens has triggered angry recriminations among politicians in the southern state of Bavaria about who is to blame for the project's abrupt demise.
Bavaria's Premier Guenter Beckstein of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) slammed the industrial consortium developing the technology for the failure of the Munich train project, which his predecessor Edmund Stoiber had pushed through shortly before stepping down.
"Those who couldn't keep their promises" are responsible for putting the project on ice, Beckstein told the Friday edition of the Passauer Neue Presse. He added that "no other routes will be built in Germany. The Munich project was the last chance."
CSU secretary general Christine Haderthauer joined the Bavarian premier in placing blame on the project's industrial partners.
"Apparently, industry didn't want a flagship project, but to make a profit," she told Berliner Zeitung.
Opposition to train project
The CSU, Bavarian sister-party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, had long been under fire for the controversial endeavor and critics had accused former Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber, who stepped down last year, of trying to make the Transrapid his personal legacy.
"Bavaria's conservative party led a propaganda campaign for the Transrapid for years and splurged taxpayers' money on it," said Franz Maget, head of the Social Democratic Party in Bavaria.
In November, some 13,000 people attended a demonstration against the project in Munich, where the new high-speed train would have linked the airport with the city center. Public disapproval was fuelled by a Transrapid accident that occurred due to human failure during a test run in 2006; 23 people were killed.
German engineers started developing the magnetic levitation system in 1969 and millions of euros of federal and private money has been invested in research and development since then.
Using the magnetic levitation technology, the train floats on a magnetic cushion just above the rail, traveling up to three times faster than standard steel-wheel trains. The project would have shaved travel time between the Munich airport and the city center down to 10 minutes from 40 minutes.