SHANGHAI // The district of Minhang has none of the flashiness that characterises many parts of the metropolis acknowledged as being China's business capital. Most buildings are only a few storeys tall, the shops are tiny local outlets rather than international chains and the area has a down-to-earth feel in stark contrast to parts of Pudong, where sharp-suited financiers power walk between the high-rises that form Shanghai's skyline.
But Minhang may not retain its quieter, slightly forgotten feel for much longer, because one of China's most hi-tech projects could be passing through, much to the concern of some residents. Plans are afoot to extend Shanghai's magnetic levitation (maglev) train line, which currently runs from Pudong International Airport to the city centre, through the city to Shanghai's other airport, Hongqiao, cutting through areas such as Minhang, then all the way to the city of Hangzhou, the capital of adjacent Zhejiang province more than 100km to the south-west.
One resident, Mr Li, a 30-year-old electrical engineer, said "a lot of people care about this". "If you lived very close to the maglev you would care very much," he said. Principally, Mr Li said, concerns have been voiced about possible risks of radiation poisoning to those living near a maglev train line, which uses electromagnetics to suspend the train just above the line itself. Reports have suggested there will be a "buffer zone" of little more than 20 metres on either side of the line, in which houses would be demolished and people moved elsewhere.
"They think this has some not very good influence on the human body. Not everybody understands the effects very well," Mr Li said. For residents of this part of Shanghai, concerns that a maglev line could cut through their neighbourhoods are not new. Two years ago there were street protests from residents of nearby Pinyang district and other parts of the city over previous plans to extend the line. Residents voiced concerns over the effects on their health and also said the value of their homes had suffered. It was argued the maglev was expensive and had offered only marginal benefits.
The plans were eventually shelved, but this year China's ministry of railways revealed they were back on, thanks to approval from planners at the National Development and Reform Commission. Since then, a chorus of people have voiced concerns in local media. For example, Hou Xiaogang, a mechanic whose apartment is next to the area where the proposed maglev would run, said it was "wrong to jump to the conclusion" that the maglev would not emit harmful radiation to those close to the buffer zone.
"We need years, if not decades, of research, especially when we are dealing with a large project that might affect the lives of millions," he told local media. China is currently embarked on a large-scale increase in the number of high-speed railway lines in the hope that spreading them across the country will promote economic development. "For high-speed rail, certainly that's the role, a benefit from the broader macroeconomic sense," said Manop Sangiambut, a transport analyst at CLSA Shanghai, a financial research company.
A key high-speed line linking Beijing and Shanghai is due to open next year with the fastest conventional high-speed trains in the country. These will travel at speeds of up to 380kph and cut the journey time between the two cities to four hours from 10 hours. By the end of 2012, China is expected to have more than 9,000km of new high-speed train lines. By 2020, the total figure is scheduled to reach 50,000km. At present, there are 3,676km of line that can take trains moving at speeds of up to 350kph, and an additional 2,876km of line for trains that run at speeds of between 200kph and 250kph.
The maglev is faster still, reaching speeds as high as 430kph. While this makes it quicker than conventional high-speed rail, for the Shanghai to Hangzhou trip, some argue that time saved is modest, especially for a project that will cost 22 billion yuan (Dh11.8bn). The current journey takes about two hours; the high-speed train would take 40 minutes and the proposed maglev line about 30 minutes. According to Michael Li, an industry research manager for a transport media company in Shanghai, the modest amounts of time the maglev would save meant the project was "ridiculous". He said it was unclear why the government was pressing ahead with the project. Even conventional high-speed lines in China have struggled to make a profit.
"It's not profitable at all, but the government is still pursuing this," he said, adding that the maglev was a "face" project with a lot of prestige for the authorities linked to it. No one at the ministry of railways was available for comment. An official at the media section of the Shanghai railway office said the maglev extension had not been confirmed, despite the official announcement. "Certainly this project is not at the stage of railway construction," she said. "The whole project hasn't been formally set up."
For some Shanghai residents, however, there is already uncertainty about the future of their neighbourhoods, echoing concerns from two years ago. "I think if the government can control the quality very well, the project can be a good thing," said Mr Li, the electrical engineer. "The problem is how the government can let the people understand and let the people trust that it's good for the people."