On Thursday, though, Bavarian politicians decided the so-called Transrapid wasn't worth the 3 billion new calculations showed it would have cost. And now it looks like ThyssenKrupp, part of the consortium which developed the maglev train, may be interested in selling the technology to China.
According to the online version of Die Welt on Friday, ThyssenKrupp is interested in beginning negotiations with the Chinese government in the coming weeks preparatory to a technology transfer. Citing only "company insiders," the report says that both the sale of licenses and the complete sale of the technology are being considered. China is home to the only commercially operating Transrapid line in the world.
ThyssenKrupp is responsible for the train's propulsion system, which involves a complex arrangement of electromagnets which both levitates the train -- eliminating friction -- and propels the train forward. China has eagerly tried to create a maglev train of its own, but has had difficulty copying the Transrapid propulsion system and is thus interested in acquiring the technology.
According to Die Welt, a spokeswoman from ThyssenKrupp denied that the company is considering such a sale. Chinese experts on Friday, however, said that it was unlikely that China would be interested in buying the expensive technology.
But whatever happens to the Transrapid technology, which was developed in part with some 2.4 billion in German tax revenues invested over the past three decades, its future in Germany looks grim. A number of other planned Transrapid projects have failed in the past and now, after the Munich announcement, German politicians on Thursday and Friday are busy pointing fingers at each other in an effort to avoid blame for the calamity.
But it is the Bavarian conservative party Christian Social Union (CSU) which will likely take the greatest hit. Already, the CSU's floor leader in the federal parliament, Peter Ramsauer, has blasted party leader Günther Beckstein for making a "head-over-heels" decision to cancel the project. The end of the Transrapid, which was to be a legacy of long-time Bavarian governor and former CSU leader Edmund Stoiber -- who retired last year -- has cast doubt on the CSU's handling of the project.
The Social Democrats and the Greens, both of whom were against the Transrapid project from the start, couldn't resist gloating on Thursday and Friday. "Günther Beckstein and Edmund Stoiber acted like amateurs," said SPD politician Klaas Hübner. "The Bavarian state government's strategy of pushing more and more of the cost onto the federal government didn't work."
German papers on Friday also take a look at the failure of the Transrapid in Munich.
Center-left Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Friday writes:
"The Transrapid, as a means of connecting point A with point B, is a (technology) that is difficult to integrate into a Europe that is already well-served by railways -- and it is simply too expensive. The advantages offered by the Transrapid over a high-speed traditional rail link are not enough to outweigh the high price tag. That was true of (earlier Transrapid projects that also failed) and it was true of the Munich project. One doesn't throw 3 billion out the window just to show the world what one is capable of building. Especially not when comparatively important transportation projects are currently delayed for lack of funding."
"It is not difficult to figure out who really needed and could profit from the Transrapid line to the Munich airport. It certainly wasn’t for the family flying to the Canary Islands for a vacation. Such fliers have to check in two hours before takeoff, have to pray that their flight takes off on time and, if they aren't lucky, have to change planes in Nuremberg or Stuttgart. The time it took to get to the airport was the least of their concerns. But for business travellers who show up at the airport 10 minutes before takeoff with no luggage to check, it was important. Why one should make short flights even more attractive is a question that the Bavarian government must answer -- especially given its rhetorical commitment to combating climate change."
Conservative daily Die Welt on Friday writes:
"The failure of the Transrapid began well before Thursday's announcement. The history of this 70-year-old invention is one of hesitation, the failure of transportation policy and of technophobia. There have been a number of promising possibilities to build the Transrapid. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, when there was just an aged rail link between Berlin and Hamburg. But the project failed again and again because of the cost and, most of all, because of the prevailing attitude in the country."
"From an economic point of view, the failure of the Transrapid is bearable. The fates of Siemens, ThyssenKrupp and German industry are not dependent on the technology's success. But had this once-in-a-century project been built, it would have been good for Germany as a technological leader."
"Instead, the failure shows what German's industrial policy is missing: resolution and skilful promotion. If this lesson is learned from the Transrapid debacle, then there might be a silver lining after all."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"From a technology standpoint, the magnetic levitation train was genius -- economically, unfortunately, it was stillborn. When the first concrete plans for a Transrapid link were developed at the end of the 1970s, West Germany was already crisscrossed by a comprehensive and modern track network. The ubiquitous presence of the rail network as a highly flexible and affordable transportation option stood in the way of the maglev's success in Germany from the very beginning. But there are some politicians and industrialists who still don't want to recognize that fact. Were there ever a niche market for the Transrapid, it was filled by ICE high-speed trains and by the rapidly declining price of air travel."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung focuses on the political failures that led to the Transrapid debacle:
"Politicians and industrialists are now passing the buck back and forth: Nobody wants to be seen as guilty for the flop. It is hard enough to believe that construction companies and the manufacturer of the Transrapid erred by so much in their cost calculations. That, though, was likely little more than cynicism: Politicians, primarily the CSU under Edmund Stoiber, wanted the project at all costs. In such an atmosphere, such a non-binding offer could have been expected."
"Both Minister of Transport Wolfgang Tiefensee and the Bavarian CSU leadership claimed on Thursday that they were surprised by the sudden rise in costs and that they were unwilling to spend yet more money on the Transrapid link to the Munich airport. That is a convenient excuse. Everyone was aware just how unreliable the earlier cost estimates were."
-- Charles Hawley; 2:10 p.m. CET
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