Flying was more like it, really: we were traveling more than 250 miles an hour on the Shanghai Maglev train. Technically, we were levitating — the train raced not across, but over, the tracks — magnets holding it and all of us (the cars were full) in the air as we hurtled toward Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. A screen inside the train showed us the acceleration speed…up, up, up higher to a top speed of 431 kilometers an hour. That meant we traveled 30 kilometers (18 miles) in a grand total of seven minutes. It was, to use an Earth-bound sentiment, pretty breath-taking. Did the land outside, encompassing skyscrapers, low-rise tiled houses, small estuaries, and new plantings of tree seedings, go by in a blur, I was asked? No, somehow they didn’t. The Maglev wasn’t the smoothest train I’ve ever been on (there were some bumps, a few grinds), and probably not even the fastest (that would be a Japanese bullet train). But it was one of the most spectacular, as if the future had appeared — fast — and moved on again. (And a one-way ticket cost less than U.S. $10.)
Shanghai’s proud of the train, a result of German-Chinese cooperative engineering. There are Maglev souvenirs (I got a fridge magnet at the station), an online Mag-Lev virtual experience portal (featuring elegantly dressed staff), and a Mag-Lev museum. Some years ago, the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan urged the U.S. to invest in Maglev research and even got some funds apportioned. New York City was to get a Maglev train. Sadly, we didn’t, and probably won’t. An Earth Day thought: shouldn’t the era of green infrastructure be upon us, not somehow passe? China’s moving aggressively to build more bullet trains; in the recently ratified U.S. budget deal, all additional funds for high-speed rail development were cut. I’m holding on to my Shanghai Maglev magnet, but maybe I should have brought back a few hundred more…for far broader dissemination.