China gets its rail network up to speed
A China Railways CRH3 high-speed train parked in Beijing South station. photograph: bloomberg
Not only does China’s new high-speed rail system work, it is proving to be financially viable too
Picture yourself getting into a gleaming bullet train in Beijing and then pitching up at Dublin’s Connolly Station several days later, having traversed central Asia and the European mainland by high-speed rail. This is a real possibility by 2025, if China’s ambitions to build an iron silk road using its high-speed rail technology.
Closer to home, imagine being able to travel by train from Cork to Dublin in just 40 minutes. On a much larger scale, the equivalent journey across the north-south divide in China is Beijing to Guangzhou, a 2,298km journey that used to take 22 hours, but now takes just eight hours since the opening in December of the high-speed line between the capital and the southern commercial hub.
In terms of showcasing China’s technological innovations, and showing how it has become so much more than just a low-cost manufacturer, the high-speed rail project is up there with the space programme and the Beijing Olympics.
Wang Hui, deputy dean of the School of Economics and Management at the Shijiazhuang Tiedao University in Hebei, outlined the opportunities the new route will bring.
“The Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed railway connects the economic region around Beijing with the Pearl River Delta. Considering the population and levels of development of the two economic zones, they are undoubtedly important engines for China’s economy, therefore improving the transport system will definitely increase exchanges between the two in terms of investment, talent and information,” he said.
Another showcase route is the Beijing to Shanghai route, which covers 1,318km and runs 90 pairs of trains daily, with the trip taking four hours and 48 minutes.
China started its high-speed rail network programme in 2007, but already it is the biggest in the world, with 9,356km of high-speed railways.
The web of bullet train lines will reach 18,000km by 2015, Sheng Guangzu, minister of railways, told a recent rail conference. That means more than 8,000km of newly built stock will be put into service within three years.
The plan is to expand this to 50,000km by 2020, with four main lines running north and south, and another four east and west. The high-speed train pulls in to vast, customised stations, with terrific facilities.
At times, it makes Irish and British rail networks look as modern as Thomas the Tank Engine.
This is still a developing country, and there are complaints that the prices are too high. The top price for a ticket from Beijing to Guangzhou is more than 2,000 yuan (€235), which is about the same price as a flight.
It is the emerging middle class and wealthy who take the train. Even though the Guangzhou to Beijing journey takes eight hours, versus around three hours flying, many travellers like the fact that there are fewer interruptions, the view is pretty, you can walk around at leisure and it is easier to work – even if internet access seems a bit patchy and not all the seats had power-points.
Investment in the high-speed rail network was a big part of China’s infrastructure spending programme in 2008/2009, when Beijing pushed out a four trillion yuan (€490 billion) stimulus to fight the financial crisis.