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The United States has allocated $13 billion for the construction of high-speed rail lines over the next five years. But China plans to spend $300 billion in the next decade to build the world's most extensive and advanced high-speed rail network. The Chinese government sees it as a strategic investment that will help jump-start its economy.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn recently took a ride on what is now the world's fastest train, and he filed this report.

ANTHONY KUHN: 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.

(Soundbite of train station)

Unidentified Woman #1: Passengers, welcome to ...

KUHN: The mostly middle-class passengers line up to board the 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.

(Soundbite of train)

KUHN: In the first-class section, where tickets cost upwards of $100, 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.

Mr. YANG TAO (Real Estate Company Manager): (Through translator) My wife is afraid of flying. 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.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Woman #2: The train's speed is up to 350 kilometers per hour, and the train frequency is up to one every three minutes.

KUHN: 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 almost 220 miles an hour.

(Soundbite of train)

KUHN: By 2012, China plans to have almost three dozen high-speed rail lines crisscrossing the country. Legions of workers are now building the Beijing-to-Shanghai line, which at $32 billion will be China's most expensive construction project ever. Graduate student Grace Huang says the new link between Wuhan and Guangzhou is completely different from the lumbering, claustrophobic boxcars Chinese train travelers are accustomed to.

Ms. GRACE HUANG: (Through translator) This train's a big improvement. 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.

KUHN: Critics argue that the bullet trains are overkill, and what China really needs is affordable transportation for the masses. Xie Weida, a railway expert at Shanghai's Tongji University, disagrees.

Professor XIE WEIDA (Railway Expert, Tongji University): (Through translator) High-speed rail can ease our transportation bottlenecks. 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.

KUHN: China's leaders say their country will not follow the West's path of development � sacrificing the environment in order to industrialize. Chinese investment in high-speed rail is a part of this strategy, says Xie Weida.

Prof. XIE: (Through translator) To solve the problem of public transportation in such a vast country, 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.

(Soundbite of train recording)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: Passengers exit the train in Guangzhou, and board buses and taxis for the city center. For some Chinese, the high-speed trains have already begun to shorten the distances between cities - in their minds. Some observers predict that the trains will begin to stitch together more closely China's patchwork of regional markets, dialects and cultures.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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