An 8 minute VIP on a Maglev Train: Shanghai, China


China is massive in every context.

This probably explains the Chinese term for mainland: Dàlù. It literally means ‘the continent’. Mainland refers to the area which is directly under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China. So, this excludes HongKong and Macau, which are Special Administrative Regions. And about Taiwan, well, let’s not go there because it is an entirely different political discussion. I’ve visited Hong Kong, Macau and even Taiwan.

But I have never visited Mainland China until last month.


To be fair, the only reason was the visa. While Hong Kong and Macau had visa-on-arrival for Indians (Hong Kong has stopped VOA now), Taiwan had an electronic visa policy for Indians who had a US visa. But Mainland China, or PRC, required me to go through a visa application, for which I couldn’t find the time until recently. In early May, I had a few days available to get away, and I chose Shanghai. The pearl of the orient.


Read: 10 countries where Indians do not need an advance visa


Gone are the years when Shanghai used to be called ‘The whore of Asia’, in reference to the drugs, triad gangs and prostitution that was prevalent here. Like the proverbial phoenix, Shanghai rose from the ashes of its past and grew into an economic behemoth. At one point, it was contributing 70% of the Tax revenue of the entire country! And since recently it joined the likes of St. Moscow, London, Los Angeles and Stuttgart by becoming one of the sister cities of Mumbai, I knew I had to start my exploration of mainland China here.

 

China Eastern Airlines used Shanghai as their hub, just like how China Southern used Beijing as the hub. Although they were a close 2nd in the race for becoming the largest airline-carrier in China, they still had impressive connections to almost every corner of the world – either directly or the skyteam alliance. So, flying into Shanghai’s Pudong airport was easy, given the number of direct/transit flights going here on China Eastern Airlines.

What I was very keenly interested in, was on how to leave the airport to the city.



Say hello to Magnetic Levitation!


I had a flight landing at 5 AM in the morning. And I had to get to the Shanghai city, which lay 40 KM to the west of the Pudong airport. At such an early time of day, there were actually not many transportation options, except a taxi. But the stingy, broke, miserly backpacker that I am, I had already decided that I was going to wait till the first public transportation started running. But I did not want to take the bus or the metro. There was a 3rd option available in Shanghai.

And a pretty darn enticing one at that.

 

Maglev (from Magetic Levitation) is the technology of moving vehicles (in this case, trains) without them having to touch the ground. Not like an airplane, but rather using electromagnetic suspension. Now, I did pretty badly in my physics classes in school, but when there is no contact, friction is tremendously reduced. And because friction is reduced, ergo, the possibility of really high speeds.

It was the Germans who came up with the idea first of using Magnetic levitation to power high-speed trains, before world war II happened. A prototype was developed by the Americans, and at different points of the last century, the Germans, Canadians and British all came up with operational maglev trains. But none of them could achieve financial viability, and most of them were slow-speed Maglev lines. As of now, there are only 3 operational Maglev transportation lines. And all 3 are – not surprising for the new century – in Asia. Japan had the Linimo line and the SC Maglev since the 1970s. In 1993, South Korea opened the Incheon Airport Maglev line.

And in 2004, never one to be left behind, China started operations of the Shanghai Maglev train. As of now, this remains the fastest commercial train in the world.

shanghai maglev train

The beauty that I would be riding in a short while

 

Like how the shinkansen trains were an integral experience when visiting Japan, the Shanghai Maglev was at the same par. At an operational length of only 31 KMs, the Shanghai Maglev line was not for the joys of enjoying a long-distance train ride. But how short it would be, was something I still had to figure out.


Read: My experience on crossing borders on a train in Eastern Europe, from Romania to Bulgaria.



After my flight landed at 5 AM, I hung around the Pudong airport till 6.45 AM. It wasn’t such a strange thing to do, because the airport was filled with ubiquitous passengers who awaited for their next transit flight or the arrival of the first metro train of the day. The metro line itself opened only at 6.30, so I did have a lot of company until then. I spent the time having a coffee at the starbucks (although Shanghai was the first starbucks where they did not have Soy Milk!)

At 6.45, the Maglev ticket center finally opened.

shanghai maglev ticket center

5 mins after the ticketing opened, I was there to buy the ticket

 

Getting the ticket was easy, as the Shanghai Maglev only had 1 stop! The journey terminated at Longyang Rd Station, from where I had to disembark and use the regular metro network (Metro line 2 or 7) to get to my hotel in Zhaojiabang Rd. The ticket was 50 CNY one-way (40, if you can show the flight ticket), or 80 CNY for a round-trip. I was about to buy the round-trip ticket, but something else caught my attention.

There was a VIP-Class. Yeah, the cost was double at 160 CNY for a round-trip, but it was a VIP Class!

 

Now, I am a sucker for train travel! I have taken trains almost the length and breadth of India, and also in both Western and Eastern Europe, South East Asia, Japan and Taiwan. And I have always traveled economy class. But the thought of being a VIP on the world’s fastest train that could hit a top-speed of 431 KM/H?

That was quite tempting, even for my backpacker instincts. And I gave into the temptation.

 

Unlike the regular Shanghai Maglev ticket – which was in a blue color – the VIP ticket turned out to be in a golden color. I would also figure out later that the color separation also existed for the seat covers. But more about that later.

Short of 160 CNY, but armed with a golden ticket to the fastest train in the world, I walked over to the Maglev platform, which was just a minute or 2 from the ticket center. Flashed my ticket at the entry machines, but not before putting my bags through the scanner. Well, when you remember that they have spent USD 1.3 billion to build this, I guess China has every reason to take its security seriously.

At the platform, I finally rested my eyes on the beautiful sight. The Shanghai Maglev train.

shanghai maglev worlds fastest train

Coming face to face with the world’s fastest train


Riding the Shanghai Maglev train


At first sight, the Maglev looked like any other metro train in the world. But I knew it was not true. The train was not touching anything where it stood! If only, I could jump into the tracks and take a look at the base! Since that would have been a sure-fire way to get deported from China, I decided to enjoy the experience of the magnetism, rather than see it with my own eyes.

Since I had a VIP ticket, a chauffeur walked up to me with a wide-smile. And surprisingly, spoke fluent English! He started guiding me to the front of the train, where the VIP-class compartment was located. And when I finally entered the compartment, I felt an unsure mix of joy and scepticism!

vip class shanghai maglev train

The seat covers in the VIP class were gold – like the ticket. The economy class was blue, like the ticket too


shanghai magnetic levitation train vip class

Chilling like a villain who owned his own train.

 

There was no one else in the VIP compartment! It was completely empty. “You can sit anywhere”, said the friendly Chauffeur with a smile before he walked away. And I had 2 thoughts.

One, I may be incredibly lucky to be taking the train at a time when the entire compartment was empty. Or two, I may be the only idiot who decided to buy a VIP ticket, as the rest of the people on the train – sitting in the regular cabin – probably knew that the VIP class was a waste of money.

 

I stayed optimistic. Put my feet up on the golden leather seat and tried to view the operators cabin, which was just a seat away from me. And then at the timer/clock on top. The train was to start at 7AM. With just a delay of 2 minutes, at exactly 7:02 AM, we started rolling.

Wait, not rolling; since this was maglev. We started moving.

maglev operators cabin

Peeking into the operators cabin

 

The Maglev started moving out of the airport, gradually increasing its speed. Within a minute, we were at nearly 150 Km/h. The airport area started going by in a whizzy speed. The most interesting part, was the turning. Since there was no contact, the Maglev had a very interesting way of making a turn. By altering the tracks. At places where there was a turn required, the track was elevated on one side. So, if the train was supposed to turn right, the track itself was elevated on the left. This made for a interesting train experience, because I could feel my body swerving to the right, caught up with the inertia. And mind you, these turns are happening above 250 KMH. It was an exhilarating experience.

The speed kept increasing by the second. And after 4 minutes, when it reached 301 KM/H, it stopped.

view from the shanghai maglev

Shanghai was becoming a blur to my eyes on the Maglev.


Shanghai maglev top speed

Why did it stop at 301?

I was confused. The Maglev was supposed to hit a top-speed of 431 KM/H. Sure, 301 was already exhilarating, but I wanted to push the pedal even further. But it stopped. And stayed there until the end. Whaaaaatttt???

8 minutes after it had started, the Shanghai Maglev came to a stop. 8 minutes. That’s all the time I rode on the world’s fastest train. And I had paid twice the money to experience the VIP experience. Which meant I got the golden seat, and a compartment all to myself. Was it worth it? Every travel experience is worth it, my friend!

The Maglev experience continued even after I left the train compartment, as the Maglev station at Longyang Rd, also had a Shanghai Maglev Museum, which is completely free of cost. It does offer an exciting view into how the magnetic levitation actually works, making it easy for even an idiot like me who learnt his physics from the Matrix movies.

train ride end shanghai maglev

And my cameo as a VIP in China ended exactly after 8 minutes and 31 KMs


shanghai maglev museum

Note that the museum opens only at 9 AM, and was closed when I reached Longyang Rd. I visited it during my return trip


shanghai maglev museum interior

They managed to educate even me, about how the technology worked


 

PS: I learned later that the Maglev has different speeds for peak hours and non-peak hours. I had taken a train during the non-peak so early in the morning. So, the max speed was only 301. Well, I took my return trip during peak hours, and did experience the top-speed above 400 KM/H. But that would be another story. 😉



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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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