Monday, August 2, 2010

A Ride Through Shanghai

(Well, not that kind of ride...)

Today's task was to sample Shanghai's public transit. Well, after my regular visit to the copy markets for a haul of DVDs (the complete run of Mad Men, which I've never seen but about which I've heard good things, two Discovery Channel series, and a few current movies including the second Dragon Tattoo Girl film). My walk was hampered a bit by scalding temps (currently shown as 100° with some humidity), but I still saw something of the city walking to and from train stops.

I've been thinking lately that I should make a point to try out some of the transit systems in the cities I visit, since, well, I'm a transportation kinda guy. It's been an oversight for me not to have sampled the trains in Cologne especially, and there are train systems in Guangzhou and Sydney that I have yet to try as well (though I've ridden buses and a ferry in Sydney). I've thought before about trying the subway systems here in China, but I've never needed them to get where I was going and I've had my hands full just seeing what I've seen thus far on foot.

In addition to one of the world's newest and largest subway systems, Shanghai also has one of the world's few working maglev trains, which is a must-see attraction for a machinery and transportation geek. So today I combined the two: I walked a few miles to a convenient subway station, took the subway to the maglev train, and took the maglev out to the airport and back. Then a different subway to another part of town and a couple miles' walk back to the hotel.

First, the subway--the Shanghai Metro (the Wikipedia article is excellent). The system was opened in 1995 and is now among the world's largest subway systems in terms of mileage and stations. Everything naturally seems quite new. Rolling stock on both lines I was on (the 2 and the 7) seemed identical. The system runs deeper underground than NY's or Chicago's cut-and-cover tunnels, but not so deep as London's. The stations are bright and full of advertising, but not quite as clean as I'm used to seeing things here (the big Chinese cities I've been in are not especially clean places, but for big cities they're more picked-up than most). But there is a sense of heavy usage and the size of the system makes its upkeep seem a bit daunting. Signage is easy to decipher, and the ticketing machines have an English button, so it's quite easy to find your way around as a foreigner. And it's cheap: four yuan for a ride, or about 59 cents. There are subway maps in every station, but it's necessary to carry a city map with you as well, since the subway map does not indicate the major landmarks near the stations (I've seen this before--and even have a book on the subject: the subway map seems to desire first to be an elegant graphical representation and only second to show the stops relative to, you know, the city being served). Because I had only walked a small portion of the huge city, virtually every stop on both subway lines was in an area unfamiliar to me. And yet it all seemed easy enough to manage and orient.

The cars themselves are clean and new. They feature a colorful decor, but seating consists of fiberglass benches along the sides of the car and floors covered in a linoleum that feels like what was used in your elementary school bathrooms. So it's bright and modern but it feels a bit institutional. (It strikes me that this configuration is best for accommodating the largest number of people on a crowded train and keeping the cars looking fresh. In the largest city in a country of 1.3 billion, keeping everything from looking immediately tired must be a big concern.) One nice touch is that the trains are built as units with all middle cars being fully open, so that the whole train is one long hollow tube capped only at the very ends. This makes moving from car to car a non-event. The ride was smoother and quieter than I'm used to with American subways, but things move slowly in the stations themselves. A number of stations have a glass partition separating the passengers from the tracks, and the driver must line the train doors up with the partition doors. This seems a mildly problematic maneuver to effect, and after the slow docking the train typically sits for 20 seconds or so after stopping before the doors open. Then another 20 seconds passes after the doors close. So it's all a bit cumbersome. The doors close slowly and then with an aggressive whack! at the very end (maybe to discourage anyone from trying a last-second lunge).

(These particular glass partitions do not have doors. Others I saw did.)

One downside I noticed is that the transfers between lines seem to involve quite a hike. I entered the East Nanjing Road station to get on an Eastbound 2 Line train, and I ended up walking what seemed like three blocks underground to get to the actual train. Then when I came back on the maglev and headed for the 7 Line, again it was 2 blocks' walk or so once inside the station to get to the train. These stations both served multiple lines, but I'm surprised the lines don't cross each other such that a transfer simply requires walking up or down a level. Instead, the lines seem to run on the same plane and to be separated by some geographical distance. (The Chinese are not idiots; I imagine there is a good reason for the arrangement.)

I was riding during the noon to 2:PM time frame, and the stations were busy and the trains about half full. I'll have to make a point to sample some of the other lines on my next visit. As with so many things in China's big cities, I'm always a bit surprised to see the number of service and security jobs here. There were security people on all the train platforms, and one had to put bags and parcels through a manned x-ray detector at all the stations I saw (though we were not scanned bodily). Maybe these security measures are related to the ongoing Shanghai Expo, but it's a lot of people in any case.

Next, the maglev.

(The whole vehicle seems more aircraft than train.)

This is not the first high speed train I've been on. Susan and I rode a couple when we were in Europe a few years ago, and those trains operated at about the same speed as the maglev demonstrated on my ride. But it turns out that my riding time corresponded to a lower-speed period of the day on the maglev, and the train is capable of nearly 50% more speed than what I saw (this would be much faster than the high-speed trains in Europe). It opened for business in 2004 and operates between the outskirts of Shanghai and Pudong airport some 19 miles away. The initial goal was to bring visitors quickly to the city's main train system (though the regular subway also runs to the airport), from which they could easily get anywhere. The run takes either seven or eight minutes, depending on time of day (the same run in a hotel van takes us about 35 minutes). At this time of day the train holds a steady 300 kph, or about 180 mph. During rush hours the train hits its maximum speed of 430 kph (about 270 mph), though this increase in speed lops only a minute off the transit times for such a short distance. Acceleration feels lazy-ish and unremarkable, but the smoothness is deceptive; we find ourselves at top speed only a minute or two after leaving the station. It's a little disconcerting to see the whole train tilt for the banking in curves, very much like an airplane. If you didn't look up you'd never feel it, but it's an odd experience on a train. The ride isn't absolutely smooth and quiet, but you can walk around as it goes and carry on easy conversations. And that's at almost 200 mph. At normal train speeds it would indeed seem whisper-quiet and glass-smooth. I was interested to note the ride quality on this train since, as I understand it, there is no physical contact between the train and the rails. The mind conjures an image of the train floating a few inches above the rails like magic, and that seems not quite accurate. I suspect the tolerances are quite close, and the force of the magnetic field might just as well be a steel-on-steel contact. Especially at start up and when stopping, there is a slightly rough growl to the train, almost as though it had wheels. Once underway, the train lurches and rocks a bit like any train. But two trains meeting (with a closure speed of between 380 and 520 mph!) pass each other so quickly that you can't even process it. And the wind blast hits like a physical impact, like we've bumped a tree trunk.

I see now that the Wikipedia article says an extension has been approved which will connect Pudong airport with Hangzhou airport about 125 miles away. The train will run this extension at higher speeds yet, making the trip in only 15 minutes. Originally, this present maglev was being considered for high speed transportation between Shanghai and Beijing, but more conventional technology was eventually chosen (probably because the construction costs of the maglev ran, I believe, to about $1 billion per mile). This line is expected to open next year, and will run at similar speeds to the maglev.

Here's what 180 mph looks like:

(This is my first video post ever, so expect it to suck...)

So, an excellent day in the city. I didn't see any particularly interesting areas, though my walk back to the hotel was through a decidedly non-tourist area. At this rate it will take me a decade at this pace to really get to know the city, but I look forward to the discovery.

(Bike-truck fetish. Sorry.)

(So many of these little foot- or bike-borne vendors. I wonder at the economics that make this kind of commerce viable.)

(A little street food vendor. That's the entirety of the shop. These are everywhere.)

(Air conditioning units on houses where their neighbors' houses are literally falling down.)

(Another little street food vendor. Nicely-dressed patrons. There are picnic tables on the other side of the service table.)

(A typical neighborhood entrance. I wonder what the words overhead say.)


Jon said...

Your video post was interesting. ( what would you do without your I Phone) I didnt expect to see so many trees, or green for that matter, along the route. With so many people, I guess I just expected to see buildings. The water as always is brown and most likely filthy. It would be neat to travel on the new train once it is done and make such a long trip in only 15 minutes.

wunelle said...

I've just never thought much about video posting. I suppose it's a natural evolution. In the case of the maglev, I was just taken by how quickly the world passes by @ nearly 200 mph (we fly much faster than this, of course, but you're not NEAR anything to see it). Shanghai is a big place, but the airport was purposefully built quite a ways out of town. So it's less rural than it looks but true, there are a lot of trees and woods along the way.

I agree that taking the longer train would be a fun way to spend some time. At least one could see something of the Chinese countryside.

CyberKitten said...

Maglev's are *so* cool!

Jeffy said...

Somehow I missed this post in my feed and only saw the comments.

The video was actually pretty good! I was surprised to see that it didn't seem to look all that fast. If I had to guess I would have picked something in the 60-80 MPH range.

wunelle said...

Yeah, I should have started from the beginning, scanning back occasionally to the speed-o-meter. I have another video of us slowing into the airport and we're still leaving every car behind like they're standing still. And that's at about 100 mph! It's deceptively fast.