The Flying Hamburger: German hover-train will be world's fastest at 300mph

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The German government yesterday gave the green light to the world's fastest train, which is designed to glide from Hamburg to Berlin at speeds of up to 300mph.

Work on the Transrapid project, financed jointly by taxpayers and private enterprise, is due to begin next year, with the trains scheduled to make their first journey in 2005. They will cover the 185-mile distance, with a stop in Schwerin, in less than an hour. Transrapid will herald a new age of the railway. Levitating on a magnetic cushion half an inch above the specially constructed track, the light-weight vehicles will dispense with wheels, traditional brakes, friction and noise.

Such systems already operate on short stretches around the world, but the Hamburg-Berlin line will be the first to apply the technology at a distance long enough to swamp other means of transport. The government and the German companies pioneering Transrapid hope their courage will be rewarded with export orders world-wide.

But although several countries, notably Brazil, the United States, Australia and China, have expressed interest in magnetic levitation (Maglev) trains, no firm order has been received. The incalculable revenue from exports has long been the subject of dispute in Germany, following realisation that Transrapid will not make money at home for a long time.

Indeed, yesterday's pledge of funds by the Transport Minister, Matthias Wissmann, was precipitated by the withdrawal of three large German construction companies from the project. The estimated cost of the project has gone up by 10 per cent of original calculations, while revenue forecasts have been revised downwards.

According to the latest figures, the government will invest DM6.1bn (aboutpounds 2.1bn), while the private sector will put up DM3.7bn. Annual profit is currently projected at just under DM1bn by 2010. Opponents say that is still pie in the sky, but the government commitment seems to ensure that the project will be realised. "I feel more optimistic than ever in saying that Transrapid will come," Mr Wissmann said yesterday.

Money apart, Transrapid still faces opposition on other fronts. The Greens deplore the elevated track's impact on the landscape, and its higher energy use than traditional trains. Resistance is strongest in Schleswig-Holstein, the Land along a section of the track, whose government of Social Democrats and Greens is still fighting a rearguard battle, and can delay the planning stages. Villages along the way have found a powerful ally in the Bismarck family, whose wooded estate lies in the path of progress.

Their power of obstruction is more than balanced, however, by the Transrapid lobby. The state railway company, and the private concerns Thyssen, Siemens and Adtranz have a vested interest in milking their investment. Chancellor Helmut Kohl and even the Finance Minister, Theo Waigel, are Maglev enthusiasts, and all but one of the regions affected support the line.

All arguments have, in any case, been outweighed by considerations of prestige. Germany was a late entrant to the high-speed rail race, and felt humiliated when France's TGV conquered rich foreign markets, rendering the rival German technology obsolete. Transrapid is meant to be the revanche, and something more. It is set to become a national symbol; the crowning glory of Germany's new capital, its space-age terminus by the Reichstag the most important hub in Europe.

There are plans to take the line further east, to Warsaw and beyond. That may seem an implausible dream now, but that's what they used to say about the futuristic blueprints of the Hamburg-Berlin shuttle.