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China abandons plans to build fast rail

(The Associated Press distributed the following article on January 16.)

BEIJING -- China has abandoned plans to build a high-speed magnetic-levitation railway between Beijing and Shanghai in favor of less expensive conventional trains, the government said Friday through its official media.

The China Daily, citing unidentified sources, said Premier Wen Jiabao was involved in the decision to use the conventional rail system. The Communist Party newspaper People's Daily also reported the decision.

Officials made the decision at a Jan. 7 meeting of the State Council, the country's Cabinet, according to the China Daily.

Besides cost, ``the maglev technique was excluded because it does not match the wheel-track technique used by railways in China,'' the report said, citing Wang Derong, vice-chairman of the China Transport Association.

The Railways Ministry had no immediate public comment and did not answer its telephone Friday morning. At least one newspaper, the Beijing Morning Post, said the decision to abandon the maglev plan had not been finalized.

The scrapping of the 9-year-old maglev project -- two weeks after the country's first maglev, a short stretch in Shanghai, began regular operation -- represents a setback for the development of the technology in China, which many had seen as one of its key markets.

It also appears to open the market for other alternatives on the proposed Beijing-Shanghai line.

Other options for the railway, according to state media, include styling it after the Shinkansen, Japan's high-speed bullet train, or two methods used in France -- TGV and Inter-City Express. The Shanghai maglev is German-built.

The online edition of People's Daily said the decision was part of a larger plan for the nation's railways passed by the Cabinet.

``There have been many versions of the rail and maglev dispute, but an end has been put on them by the passage of the medium-and-long term plan,'' People's Daily said. ``This is indeed the end of decade-long feasibility studies.''

Leaders envision a high-speed railway network for China that includes four north-south lines and four east-west lines, the government says.

Such a network would help move hundreds of millions of Chinese who increasingly are traveling around their own country -- and, more important, help transport goods and raw materials.

China began daily runs of the world's first commercially operated maglev in Shanghai on Jan. 1, but the $1.2 billion German-built system spans only 18 miles. It connects Shanghai to its 3-year-old airport, the city's second.

The Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway Project was first proposed in 1997. The cost of the 750-mile railway has been estimated at $14 billion.

The maglev cost can be as high as $36 million to $48 million per half mile, twice that of wheel-track lines, the China Daily said.

German companies spent decades and billions of dollars developing maglev technology, but had searched in vain for a customer until Shanghai leaders picked the system as a way to highlight the city's high-tech ambitions.

Friday, January 16, 2004

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