Left behind again
by Michael Tan

Phil Daily Inquirer, "Pinoy Kasi"
07 January 2003

IMAGINE making a 30-kilometer land trip (about the distance from Manila to the town of Calamba in Laguna province) in 15 minutes.

Impossible? That's what it takes using Shanghai's new "maglev" train, which for its initial phase is running between the city's financial district and its international airport. The maglev is now the world's fastest passenger train system, surpassing speeds of the Japanese bullet train or the French TGV.

"Maglev" means "magnetically levitated," referring to the way the trains are suspended about one centimeter above the tracks by powerful magnets, rather than running directly on rails. This suspension allows cruising speeds of about 400 kilometers an hour, faster than a small light plane. No wonder the Chinese premier, Zhu Rongji, who was at the maglev's inauguration, called the train a "miracle."

I don't want to gush too much about the technology. I think it's more important we learn from all this, the maglev train being the latest reminder that China, a country supposedly more underdeveloped than we are, is now hurtling rapidly into a bold future, leaving us far behind.

The first, and most important, lesson from all this is that a mass transit system is essential for an economy to grow, moving people and goods as efficiently as possible. The Chinese know this, and have invested in the last 10 years in modernizing their transportation infrastructure. In Shanghai, for example, the maglev train is only one small part of the city's mass transport system. Already in place are buses and rapid trains within the city, including an impressive line that shoots across the Huangpo River, connecting the older western part of the city to an ultra-modern eastern financial district.

I need not go into details to describe the mass transit systems in our cities, except to say they waste so much of people's time and energy. The economic losses run into billions of pesos each year from reduced workers' productivity, illnesses from pollution, and gasoline wasted from idling engines.

The Chinese and our other Asian neighbors know that efficient mass transit systems are good for tourism as well. The Chinese now have a 200-kilometer highway linking Shanghai to Hangzhou, a major tourist destination, taking all of three hours of a leisurely drive, including breaks for ngiao ngiao (the Chinese euphemism for peeing). That's about the distance from Manila to Baguio City, which can take a harrowing six or seven hours.

The Chinese are not content with the three-hour trip between Shanghai and Hangzhou. They're now talking about a maglev train connection that would cut travel time down to about half an hour. They're also thinking of a Shanghai-Beijing line, which would whittle travel time down from the current 15 hours to an amazing three.

The second lesson to pick up from the Chinese is that the infrastructure for transportation must be built rapidly, to keep up with the needs of the times. The 30-kilometer maglev line was completed within a year, again in stark contrast to the "progress" we've been making on the Santa Mesa-Aurora Boulevard segment of our Light Rail Transit, a paltry distance of about six kilometers that was started during Fidel Ramos' presidency and might end up being inaugurated by him if he is reelected in 2004.

Trains would have been the way to go for the Philippines, providing low-cost and safe land travel, but our railway system never got off the ground, despite promises from politicians, and what's left of it continues to deteriorate. Contrast our situation with that of neighboring Southeast Asian countries, which have even revived old luxury train lines such as the Eastern & Oriental to attract tourists who want to just chug along, taking in the countryside from the comfort of the train. Here, we advise tourists to be ready to duck while on the train because people living by the tracks hurl stones at the train. Well, stones or worse, and I don't just mean ngiao-ngiao.

Lesson three from the maglev trains in Shanghai: learn to use foreign technologies. The maglev is an interesting example of what globalization could be, where two parties benefit. Maglev technology was developed by the German companies Siemens AG and ThyssenKrupp, which also invested one billion dollars to build the Shanghai system, knowing that this could showcase their technology to bring more contracts from other Chinese cities as well as other countries.

The Chinese are not about to be passive recipients of German technology. Almost at the same time they inaugurated the Shanghai maglev, they rolled out their local version from the Changchun Passenger Train Factory in the northern province of Jilin. The Chinese maglev's maximum speed is "only" about 96 kilometers an hour, but give them time and they'll perfect the technology, as they're doing now with computers, television sets, DVDs and other electronic goods.

The Japanese started it all, learning to adopt what they could from the West. The South Koreans and the Taiwanese followed suit, and now it's the mainland Chinese. Our East Asian neighbors weren't content to remain consumers. They sent out their best young students to train abroad, even while bringing in the world's knowledge by translating or reprinting technical books. They imported foreign goods, not so much to consume but to dismantle and to copy.

Filipino households used to be filled with Japanese electronics. Then the Sony and Panasonic brands began to give way to Korean and Taiwanese brands like Samsung, Standard and Acer. The next wave has started, with products from China with brand names like Konka and Amoisonic. The quality isn't always too reliable but remember how the "Made in Japan" label evolved as well, with connotations of inferiority in the 1960s to its present status, where it is as good, if not better, than a "Made in the USA." or "Made in Germany" label.

Don't be surprised if we eventually begin to import Chinese buses: The Chinese have developed their own sleek lines copied from European vehicles. Eventually, if we come to our senses about developing our railways, we just might have to import Chinese trains, perhaps the surplus ones they want to discard as they switch over to their own locally produced maglev.

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