Saturday, November 3, 2007

Miles gegen den Transrapid

We began to notice posters all over Munich announcing a Grossdemo ("Big Demonstration") with a picture of a gleaming high-speed train, the "Transrapid". I thought, wow, they must be planning to demonstrate some wonderous new maglev technology to all the local trainspotters.

Reading the posters a bit more carefully as the week wore on, the realization slowly permeated through the thick membrane of my rudimentary German that this was really a protest march against the Transrapid, depicted with a gleaming set of sharp teeth. Which left me even more confused. Who in this country, with its gleaming, magnificent public infrastructure, would be against a high-speed train?

Plenty of people, it turns out:

We stepped out of our door to go for a walk on fine Saturday afternoon, only to find ourselves right in the middle of the Grossdemo, which was making its way through the Altstadt toward the Hauptbahnhof.

As mass transit enthusiasts, we would not have chosen this cause for little Miles' first political demonstration. Nevertheless, we joined the march for a few blocks to soak up the atmosphere.

The proposed Transrapid line would cut the travel time from Central Munich to the airport from 40 minutes to 10. That did not impress the demonstrators, who seemed primarily (though not exclusively) drawn from the political left. Insofar as an argument could be deduced from their banners, they objected to the Transrapid on the grounds that it was a "Rich Man's Train" -- the money could be better spent feeding poor families or improving the city's more quotidian U-Bahn (subway) and S-Bahn (suburban railway) networks.

Coming as we do from a country where the budget for public projects (other than Mideast wars) seems almost non-existent, the whole debate was slightly surreal. Far from being starved for cash, Munich's U-Bahn (6 lines, 98 stations, 100km of track) and S-Bahn (10 lines, 147 stations, 442km of track) together constitute the most elaborate mass transit system we've ever seen for a city of its size (population 2.6 million, 6 million in the metro area).

Meanwhile, our supposedly progressive hometown of Seattle (population 580,000, 3.2 million in the metro area) struggles to complete a single 20km line of surface light rail to its airport, thirteen years after it was first approved.

A few days after watching the Grossdemo, we learned that (notwithstanding our absentee ballots) Seattle-area voters had decisively rejected a modest measure to add some 50km of light rail track and replace some critical, crumbling highway bridges. Apparently an additional penny of sales tax was too mind-boggling a concept, especially for something that we can't immediately consume.

We Seattleites will surely enjoy having that extra change in our pockets as we sit in stalled traffic for the next 50 years. Meanwhile, Transrapid or no, Müncheners will zip around their city with ease--a grossdemo of what a little foresight, planning and (yes) taxes can do.

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