The World from Berlin: Maglev Megalomania in Bavaria

Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber announced on Tuesday that financing had been secured for the Transrapid. But many commentators think the €1.85 billion project is a waste of money and that Stoiber is only interested in putting a technological feather in his cap.

Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber with his new toy.
DPA

Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber with his new toy.

The price tag is enormous: The 37-kilometer-long (23 mile) section of magnetic-levitation train from the Munich airport to the center of the city is set to cost fully €1.85 billion ($2.6 billion). The high-tech toy promises to cut the journey time from the currently agonizing 40 minutes down to just 10 and demonstrate to the world Germany's commitment to technological advancement.

But the real reason for Tuesday's announcement that the Transrapid project was moving forward is likely to be found elsewhere. Munich, after all, is in Bavaria. And Bavaria has, for years, been the personal fiefdom of soon-to-retire Governor Edmund Stoiber. Stoiber's political mentor Franz Josef Strauss, who reigned in Bavaria from 1978 to 1988, presented the state with the airport which now bears his name. Stoiber, as has become apparent from his tireless cheerleading on behalf of the maglev choo-choo, would likewise like to retire with a billion-euro feather in his Bavarian cap.

Despite Tuesday's announcement, though, it is still not a slam dunk that the project will be built. Germany Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück has pledged €925 million of federal money for the project with the state of Bavaria coming up with most of the rest. But the €1.85 billion cost estimate is five years old and nobody has shown willingness to cough up for possible -- some would say probable -- cost overruns. Indeed, on Tuesday Stoiber said that the financing plan still depends on €50 million of European Union money -- from an annual fund for infrastructure development that contains a mere €150 million for the entire 25-country EU. Opposition to the costly project in Brussels is significant.

Still, you can't beat it as a retirement present if the train is, in fact, finished by 2012 as Stoiber thinks is possible. German commentators on Wednesday are not optimistic.

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"It will be a rude awakening for the Transrapid fans in a couple of years, when it becomes unmistakably clear that the maglev train is a technological toy which is far too expensive and which won't even cover its own costs. By that time, Stoiber will no longer be there to suppress economic logic in an effort to raise a monument to himself."

"The Transrapid dream can only become reality if the federal government takes on even more of the load. But that kind of a funding plan is only possible in places which have authoritarian leaders, such as in China, or perhaps one day in Qatar -- but not in Bavaria, despite all its monarchical traditions. Stoiber does not want to recognize that fact. He should have found himself another prestige project -- less of a white elephant -- to immortalize himself with."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is equally scathing:

"For Stoiber the Transrapid is what Airbus was to his mentor (Franz Josef) Strauss: a high-tech product which will always be connected with his name. The question is whether the politician has sought the right object to ensure he goes down in technological history."

"The magnetic train was a futuristic project back at the beginning of the 1980s when the test track was built in Emsland. Back then the government decision to build a high-speed rail network in Germany was still one that could have been modified to include the maglev. And the raised tracks would probably not have been any more expensive than straightening the railway tracks as was done instead. But since the high-speed network has been built, the Transrapid has become a system unconnected to Germany's transportation network. Not even the city of Munich wants to have it. And if Stoiber's successor doesn't work hard for its implementation … then this train won't leave the station for a long time."

The Transrapid project also takes flack from the Munich-based, center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung:

"Nobody can deny that the project would put a fascinating technology into operation. Everyone who has ridden in a Transrapid raves about the interesting experience. But one still can't speak of a 'technological beacon' being created in Munich: A ride in a Ferris wheel is also interesting ... . The whole thing is sinfully expensive and can only be justified if it is accompanied by decisive advantages. The few minutes the Transrapid would save over a standard express train are not enough."

"Furthermore, the argument that the maglev train needs to be built to prove its usefulness so that it can be sold around the world has become obsolete. The Transrapid is up and running in Shanghai and can be visited by anyone who is interested, though that hasn't yet led to additional customers. It is simply not enough that a new technology is fascinating. There has to be a need, and proof that it is forward-looking and affordable."

-- Charles Hawley, 11:45 a.m. CET

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