China Leads World In High-Speed Rail Tracks

China already has thousands of miles of railroads — including the world's longest network of high-speed rail, which is 4,000 miles long. That total is set to double within two years, giving China more high-speed rail tracks than the rest of the world put together.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

China is still in the midst of a construction boom in a mad rush to upgrade its rail system. It already has thousands of miles of railroads, including the world's longest network of high-speed rail 4,000 miles long. And that total is set to double within two years, giving China more high-speed rail tracks than the rest of the world put together.

NPR's Rob Gifford discovered it is opening up central China like never before.

ROB GIFFORD: Ten years ago, Geng Zengmin was a peasant working in a field. Today, he's a pet food salesman travelling at 160 miles per hour on a shiny new train heading west from Shanghai.�

Mr. GENG ZENGMIN (Pet Food Salesman): (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: We could not have believed this was possible even 10 years ago, says Geng. But time is money now, he says, and this high-speed railroad makes everything so much easier.

It's hard to know which is more surprising: that Chinese peasants are becoming pet food salesman, or that a journey that used to take up to 10 hours to the inland city of Hefei can now be completed in two.

(Soundbite of factory machinery)

GIFFORD: The sound of foreign factories like this one are familiar on the coast, but can now be heard here in Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, once known as the Appalachia of China. And quite simply, these factories are here because of the introduction of high-speed rail, says Fan Jiang, the U.S.-educated CEO of AllFine, a company making batteries for electric cars. It's one of many companies moving to inland China. Fan Jiang, too, repeats the modern Chinese mantra.

Mr. FAN JIANG (CEO, AllFine): Time is money. So I think the economic value will be huge. You know, in the past, the people has to set factory in Shanghai, but because of the speed, that they could set factory here and deliver the goods in time.

GIFFORD: Fan pays his workers half what he'd have to in Shanghai, between $150 and $300 U.S. dollars a month, and he receives tax breaks and a rent-free factory built for him by the local government. He says Hefei is now like an East Coast city, but with the costs of a city in Central China, often 50 percent lower.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GIFFORD: Back on the train heading West, the pet food salesmen and everyone else are enjoying the ride two hours further inland to Wuhan, a grimy industrial city on the Yangtze River that few Westerners have ever heard of, but which boasts a population of about 10 million people. Of those, about 8,000 are now foreigners, including French people making cars, German people building power plants, and Americans playing ukuleles.

(Soundbite of song, "My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I want to go back to little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii.

GIFFORD: Janie Corum is the president of the Wuhan American Chamber of Commerce. She and her husband Ralph, former teachers who lived nine years in Hawaii, have opened up a Hawaiian-themed restaurant called the Aloha Diner. Wuhan is roughly the same distance from Shanghai as Chicago is from New York, and with that journey now taking just four hours, Janie Corum says the city is being transformed.

Ms. JANIE CORUM (President, Wuhan American Chamber of Commerce): There's more traffic because more people are able to afford cars, so you're seeing a lot more consumers that have a vehicle. So I can tell that the income level is going up because of that. We've got subways that are being added here, you know, American companies coming in, Wal-Mart, they're adding more and more stores all the time. And then, of course, now with the high speed rail, it's more accessible.

GIFFORD: Some observers have questioned whether China - still very poor per capita, even as its cities boom - really needs such a good high-speed rail network. And certainly, the train tickets are still expensive by Chinese standards, and the trains are sometimes only half full. But soon, almost all the major cities in Eastern and Central China will be connected by high speed rail. Shanghai to Beijing the same distance as Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida - will take four hours by train from next year.

And while the U.S. has allocated just $8 billion to high-speed rail as part of the recent stimulus package, Chinese investment in its network has topped $120 billion so far, with several hundred billion in further spending planned.

Rob Gifford, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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