The high-speed train travels through Wuhan city in central China.
The high-speed train travels through Wuhan city in central China. Shi wei/AP
Since entering service on Dec. 26, the new train between Wuhan and Guangzhou has forced airlines to reduce ticket prices on that route.
Since entering service on Dec. 26, the new train between Wuhan and Guangzhou has forced airlines to reduce ticket prices on that route. AP
Workers are putting the finishing touches on a French-designed, glass-and-steel train station on the fringes of Wuhan, a major metropolis on the middle reaches of the Yangtze River in China.
Inside, the mostly middle-class passengers line up to board the high-speed train. It takes just three hours to cover the more than 600 miles to Guangzhou, China's third-largest city, in the heart of the industrialized Pearl River Delta. That's 10 hours less than the conventional train takes.
While the United States has allocated $13 billion for the construction of high-speed rail over the next five years, China plans to spend $300 billion in the next decade to build the world's most extensive and advanced high-speed rail network.
Luxury At 220 Miles An Hour
In the first-class section of the train to Guangzhou, where tickets cost upwards of $100 — almost double the price of second-class seats — real estate company manager Yang Tao and his wife have swiveled the seats in front of them around and put their feet up. He says he's willing to pay extra for a comfortable ride.
"My wife is afraid of flying," he says with a chuckle. "Taking this train is more convenient than going to the airport, with all the security checks. The flights are often delayed and the airlines' attitude is arrogant."
Onboard video screens show off the train's advanced features. In the dining car, passengers eat roast duck gizzards and spicy noodles and watch the terraced fields and factory towns of South China slip past their windows at speeds averaging around 220 mph.
By 2012, China plans to have almost three dozen high-speed rail lines crisscrossing the country. Nearly 130,000 workers are now building the Beijing-to-Shanghai line, which at $32 billion will be China's most expensive construction project ever. The frenzy of construction is at the heart of China's massive fiscal stimulus to revive the economy.
Since entering service on Dec. 26, the new train between Wuhan and Guangzhou has forced airlines to reduce ticket prices on that route. Graduate student Grace Huang says it is completely different from the lumbering, claustrophobic boxcars Chinese train travelers are accustomed to.
"This train is a big improvement," she declares. "It's comfortable and spacious, not crowded like regular trains. Of course, there's nothing we can do about that — China just has too many people."
Passengers in Wuhan, China, board a new high-speed train, which travels more than 600 miles to South China's Guangzhou city in less than three hours.
Passengers in Wuhan, China, board a new high-speed train, which travels more than 600 miles to South China's Guangzhou city in less than three hours. Anthony Kuhn/NPR
A Greener Option?
Critics argue that the bullet trains are overkill, and that what China really needs is affordable transportation for the masses. Xie Weida, a railway expert at Shanghai's Tongji University, disagrees.
"High-speed rail can ease our transportation bottlenecks," he says. "Migrant workers may not require high-speed trains, but if some passengers take the high-speed trains, that should relieve pressure on the ordinary ones."
Of course, that scenario will only work if the number of regular trains stays the same or increases.
China's leaders say their country will not follow the West's path of development — sacrificing the environment in order to industrialize. China's investment in high-speed rail is a part of this strategy, says Xie Weida.
"To solve the problem of public transportation in such a vast country," he argues, "rail transport is the only way to go. If we rely on airplanes and automobiles like the U.S., neither China nor the world will be able to handle such energy consumption."
In Guangzhou, passengers exit the train and board buses and taxis for the city center, to which the railway will later be extended.
For some Chinese, the high-speed trains have already begun to shorten the distances between cities in their minds. Some observers predict the fast new trains will have other effects on Chinese society, such as stitching together more closely China's patchwork of regional markets, dialects and cultures.