With the 30 June opening of the high-speed rail between Beijing and Shanghai, China became a leader in new rail developments.

Despite lagging for years behind Japan’s new maglev trains and the continuously expanding TGV in France (the just-announced Paris to Bordeaux link will cut travel time from three hours to two), China’s newly opened route is the first in a network expected to grow to 10,000 miles of track by 2020. China already built around 6,000 miles of track since deciding in 2006 to pursue high-speed rail over maglev and other technologies.

The country’s expertise in the required technologies has made them a major player among the consortia that bid for high-speed rail contracts. In March, a group of Hong Kong and Shanghai-based businesses put in a tender for the long-awaited San Francisco to San Diego line, and Russian Railways announced that it is very likely China would win the public bidding for the high-speed rail network Russia plans to have in place for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Birmingham touched off rumours that China would bid for the proposed London to Birmingham line, although construction will not begin until 2019.

The $33 billion track, which opened one year ahead of schedule, on the eve of the Communist Party’s 90th birthday, is expected to carry 180,000 passengers a day along 24 stops. It shortens the journey between the two cities from ten hours to less than five. In comparison, travelling roughly the same distance between New York and Chicago takes 19 hours on Amtrak.

Many of the towns and cities between Shanghai and Beijing are preparing for a property and population boom. The city of Xuzhou, with a population of nearly 10 million, has plans for a business district and hotel around the train station, while Qufu, where Confucius was born, will be the smallest city in China to have a Shangri-La Hotel when it opens next year. Qufu is 340 miles from Beijing, but can now be reached in just two hours.

Safety concerns for China’s high-speed rail network, which has also been hit with accusations of corruption, mean that the trains, designed for a maximum speed of 380kph, will operate no faster than 300kph. But for those who can afford the tickets, which range from 555 yuan in coach to 1,700 yuan for a first-class, fully-reclining seat for the trip between Beijing to Shanghai, the bullet trains will be welcome option. Some airlines have even cut their ticket prices by 65%, to between 400 and 2000 yuan, to compete with the cheapest rail ticket. 

The next 4,000 miles of track will connect remote cities like Urumqi and Nanning with the coastal capitals. These high-speed rail lines free up older tracks for freight, which is cheaper than trucking, and also moves workers and cheaper labour from the outer provinces more quickly to the cities, making China’s economy even more competitive.