Germans in hover-train spin

FOR the moment, it loops its way at high speed around only a tiny section of purpose-built track suspeded in the north- west German air. Its advocates portray it as a technological miracle that will make cars, express trains and even aircraft seem old hat. Its critics say it is an enormously expensive waste of time.

But the idea is gradually taking hold: the Japanese, Koreans and Americans are all developing their own versions; and German techno-optimists think they are ready to go.

If the Transrapid line is built, it will carry passengers by rail from Berlin to Hamburg in 55 minutes. At present, the train journey takes about four hours; Europe's fastest trains could do it in two; and the plane takes an hour. The floating train, in other words, is in a different league.

On its test track, the Transrapid can reach speeds of more than 300mph. Its supporters - including the German Ministry of Research and Technology, eager to have something to show for the pounds 700m of taxpayers' money that has already been spent - say that a brave new world of travel is just around the corner.

The basic idea is not new. Hermann Kemper, a German engineer, first took out a patent in 1934 for a 'levitation system with wheel-less vehicles, levitated by means of magnetic fields along iron guideways'.

Kemper's ideas are closely reflected in the magnetic levitation, or 'Maglev', train being developed today. It is supported by electromagnets, attached like claws along both sides of the bottom of the train. The contraption hovers just above its tracks, thus completely avoiding wheel friction: it is supported, propelled and braked contact-free.

Theoretically, the attractions of the Transrapid, and similar hover-trains, are many. At 200mph, it is said to be quieter than a car at 70mph. It copes with climbing better than a conventional train, which would mean fewer expensive tunnels. Its energy consumption is less than that of existing trains, let alone aircraft. Several ideas for proposed routes were abandoned before the former transport minister, Gunther Krause (who resigned in a corruption scandal, earlier this year) argued that the Transrapid should run from Berlin to Hamburg. The Finance Minister, Theo Waigel, has until now been cautious. He has emphasised that private industry should dip into its own pocket more deeply if the government is to participate in building the line, at an estimated cost of pounds 4bn. Private investors have just come up with another 'final' offer and the government could give its provisional blessing as early as this week, with construction starting in 1997.

German railways and the German airline, Lufthansa, would theoretically be involved once Transrapid is up and running, though their enthusiasm is muted. Lufthansa would lose much of its domestic business to Transrapid, and German Railways, due to be denationalised next month, makes it clear that its first love is still the ICE, the high-speed train introduced two years ago.

Transrapid's advocates argue that if the South Koreans or Japanese put passengers quickly inside their Maglev trains, they could dominate the market, if the technology takes hold. In Japan, a stretch of Maglev track is already being built.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl may be blamed, whichever way the decision goes.

If the government now says yes to Transrapid, he will be accused of squandering billions of marks if it all goes wrong. If he says no, he will be blamed for lack of vision if Maglev trains prove to be the transport of tomorrow.

(Map omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?