China's Bullet Trains
The Chinese high-speed rail system; it is fast, it is efficient and it is competing with the airlines for passengers. For the last few decades, China has been slowly increasing the speed of its trains. Most of the current high-speed rail system now travels at a speed of 300 km/hr, a decrease in the peak speed of 350 km/hr of recent times. However, the latest rail technology in this country is now testing trains that will reach a top speed of over 500 km/hr. By the end of 2015, this high speed network was originally predicted to reach 16, 000 miles. With recent concerns, it remains to be seen if this goal will be reached or not.
My son lives in Changsha, a distance of 350 kilometers (220 miles) from our city of Wuhan. By high-speed rail (HSR), it is a one hour and twenty minute trip, including several stops along the way. This train does not waste time! When the announcement says to be ready to disembark, you better be ready. It only stops for a few minutes to let people off and on, and then takes off again very quickly. The trip only costs about 175 RMB (less than $30 US).
Our route is the Wuhan-Guanzhou line and Changsha is about the half-way point. It is rarely necessary to buy a ticket ahead of time since there is a train every twenty minutes all day and into the evening. Every time we have arrived at the station, we have been able to get on the next available train. Only on our latest trip were we unsuccessful in getting a regular economy ticket and had to purchase a first class ticket for another 90 RMB. But this is the busiest time of the year with the Chinese New Year holiday underway this week.
Although there is no English spoken at the stations, it is always easy to get a ticket but remember you need to show your passport when you purchase your seat. It used to be possible to buy tickets at computerized terminals but now that is only possible for those with Chinese ID cards, ie the Chinese residents. The rest of us now have to line up at the ticket office. Once on the trains, all the announcements are in English and most of the train employees speak a little English.
Everything about these trains is high-tech, from the beautifully designed, sculptural stations to the sleek trains themselves. These are not maglev trains. They travel on a regular track. Riding along in one of these trains is comparable to a seat on a plane except there is tons of leg room. It is a very quiet, smooth ride even though on the attached video it seems quite loud. Drinks and snacks are available as well as plug-ins for laptops and other devices. As on the plane, there are music and movie channels that can be accessed if you have headphones. In addition to all the comforts, it is a great way to see the rural countryside, even if it is flying by at 300 km/hr!
Besides this route, another notable HSR line connects Shanghai and Beijing. The distance of over 800 miles can now be covered in less than five hours. The famous Shanghai airport rail link service reaches top speeds of 431 km/h (268 mph) and travels the 20 miles in just over 7 minutes. On the regular subway, it can take over an hour.
Although the recent high-speed railway accident near Wenzhou has slowed down the pace of China’s HSR development, work has resumed on a number of lines. Concerns about HSR safety, high ticket prices, low ridership, financial sustainability of high speed rail projects and environmental impact have drawn greater scrutiny from the Chinese press. However, none of these concerns were visible as we joined hundreds of others at the Wuhan station boarding the trains to return home to families for the holidays. Certainly for many people, including us, it is a great way to travel.