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
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.