Germany set for train deal with 'pariah' Iran

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Iran has launched a bid to develop Germany's Transrapid high-speed magnetic train in order to ferry up to 15 million Islamic pilgrims a year along a 480-mile route linking its capital, Tehran, with the north-eastern city of Maschhad.

If the deal goes ahead, Iran would become the second country, after China, to have bought Germany's record-breaking train, which "floats" on a monorail as a result of a magnetic levitation (maglev) system and can reach speeds of more than 280mph.

Details of the Iranian bid were disclosed yesterday by the Schlegel engineering firm in Munich, which is already involved in high-speed rail track development in Germany. The company has been asked by Tehran to conduct a feasibility study to determine whether a Transrapid track can be built along the proposed route.

Harald Spaeth, the company's director, said he met last week with the Iranian ambassador to Berlin to discuss the Transrapid. He said Iran had earmarked $1.5bn (£760m) start-up capital for the project and hoped to find co-investors.

An investment of $1.5bn would substantially increase German economic ties with Iran. German exports to Iran totalled €4bn (£2.7bn) last year.

The idea was first discussed three years ago during a visit to Tehran by Otto Wiesheu, the then Bavarian economics minister, who is currently on the board of Germany's Deutsche Bahn rail network. But Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, the two engineering companies which supply technology for the Transrapid, said they had so far not been approached by the Iranian government.

Mr Wiesheu acknowledged yesterday the difficulties posed by the current international dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, and the fact that Germany was one of the countries negotiating with Tehran over the issue. "There is no doubt that Iran is a difficult country, but transporting pilgrims in Iran is certainly not a project that would be subjected to a political boycott," he insisted.

Busses currently ply the pilgrims' route between Tehran and Maschhad. The road is so tortuous that the journey, undertaken by between 12 and 15 million people a year, takes two days to complete. The Transrapid would cut travelling time to three hours.

The super high-speed train has been dogged by controversy and opposition almost since its inception. In China, where the Trans-rapid ferries passengers from the centre of Shanghai to the city's airport, protesters have forced the authorities to postpone plans to develop the service.

Proposals to run the Transrapid along a 100-mile route linking Shanghai with the city of Hangzouh were put on ice this month after more than 5,000 residents signed a petition saying they feared health risks would result from their exposure to high electromagnetic fields created by the trains. The project was scheduled for completion in three years, when Shanghai hosts the Expo 2010 exhibition.

In Germany, plans to run the Transrapid along what was intended to be a showpiece route between Berlin and Hamburg were axed in the early 1990s amid protests from the Green Party and residents. They insisted that the train was too noisy, used too much electricity and was potentially unsafe.