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Fire on Shanghai Maglev Train Worries Germany

"German-made maglev train catches fire" -- "A black day for maglev train" -- "German-made maglev train stumbles". These were the headlines in the German media following news of a fire on Shanghai's maglev train. Priding itself on its maglev technology, the German economy has taken a heavy blow.


Fire on maglev train a heavy blow to Germany


Germany's El Mundo newspaper reported that a carriage of one of the world's first and the only commercial maglev train caught fire in the afternoon of August 11 in Shanghai. Staff evacuated all passengers as soon as the fire alarm alerted them to the flames. The article said that although the high-speed maglev train in Shanghai was put into operation in 2004, it was not subjected to an inspection until April 2006. The maglev train caught fire less than four months after it was approved for service. It is the biggest accident since the Shanghai maglev train was put into operation. August 11, 2006 is a black day for the maglev train.


Almost all German media have expressed concerns. The Bild admitted that the fire came at really a bad time. Not long before this incident, China had announced it would develop its own high-speed maglev train. The Der Spiegel argued that the accident would influence the plan to build a high-speed maglev train network between Shanghai and Hangzhou. Following the accident, Germany's involvement in the project may be in jeopardy.


Germany's attitude continues to change


From the outset, stories about China and Germany's cooperation on maglev train technology cooperation were the darlings of the German media. A noted German economist who was consulted for this article said that Germany has carried different attitudes towards the maglev train project at its four different stages.


Two years ago, the government and German enterprises were extremely devoted to the maglev project. China and Germany were quite friendly. This was reflected not only in the transfer of technology but also in financial support.


Earlier this year, when the Chinese media revealed that China had begun to develop its own maglev train technology, the German media was quick to accuse China of plagiarism. The Financial Times Deutschland said that "maglev technology is the pride of German engineering as well as a symbol of innovation. Chinese people buy foreign technology only to counterfeit it." Bavaria's State Premier, Edmund Stoiber, responded even more harshly, saying that "what happened in China smells like technical theft". Even after the German government intervened to clarify the issue, the public was not entirely convinced. Germany began to feel uneasy at this time.


When the Shanghai-Hangzhou maglev train project was announced, the German media urged the German government to turn down China's request for financing. The German Business Week and other publications pointed out that Germany still believes it has the advantage; although China has the capability to produce the maglev trains independently, it has some problems with the core technology. In Germany, of course, the technology is mature, secure and has undergone decades of testing. "In fact, the key issue in the stalemate is price. Germany was using intellectual property rights as an excuse and obstacle to negotiation. It was still pretentious at the time," said the German economist bluntly.


Recently, the development of a new maglev train project in the northern port city of Dalian came to Germany's attention. According to the Berliner Zeitung, China plans to build a 3 kilometer maglev train line in Dalian in the coming autumn. China will replace the German electromagnetic levitation system with permanent magnetic materials levitation technology, which will cut the cost by almost half. However, Germany said of the Dalian maglev project, "It is an illusion to think a speed of two hundred and twenty kilometers per hour can be reached on a three kilometer line. China would need a rocket engine to do that."


When the fire accident on the Shanghai maglev train was reported this week, the German public was shocked. A Berlin resident told reporters, "I think the media can finally shut their mouths now. They've always believed that the Chinese are copying German technology."


Germany worries about maglev project in China


German national television said people should be aware of two issues following the accident. Firstly, Germany must admit that Chinese people have their own technology. Chinese experts have spent 20 years tackling these technological challenges; "the Chinese have been studying maglev technology carefully so that they will be able to compete in five years." Secondly, they need to concede that the German technology is not as "miraculous" as was believed. Germany certainly has room for improvement.


During the interview, many German experts expressed anxiety about whether China would still use German technology when it builds the Shanghai-Hangzhou maglev line. A noted German economist believes that "the reason China has decided to cooperate with Germany is that they trust German technology and they are willing to carry out sincere cooperation with Germany. However, what Germany has done in the past does hurt the Chinese."


German Maglev Technology Inc. spokesman Faergemann said, "We are still very confident about participating in this project." He confirmed Germany's provision of at least US$1 billion to the expansion of the project. "China and Germany should continue cooperating sincerely on the maglev project."


(People's Daily August 17, 2006)




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