Whatever might be said by some and whatever some people might tell you, there is no question that this is an amazing country, at a particularly incredible stage of development.
Of course, no one really knows where it is all going, but when you are being zipped along by an immensely smooth 350km/h fast train and you look out to see still-underused, but ready-to-go wide-laned motorways, as well as gleaming new train stations, dissecting and standing out respectively from within the terraced fields that make up the majority of this new route, you think the future may not be too bad at all: those chuffing chimneys aside. Well, at least not too bad for those actually riding the train, may be less so for those still working the fields.
Although, when I was talking to a couple of village labourers recently they were seemingly very proud and excited about the new gāo tiě 高铁 (high-speed train), and were aware of its speed and the various destinations along this new route. Time will tell how long it takes for them to be riding it, but that may well be missing the point, or it might actually be hitting it straight on (more on this below when I move away from this unadulterated positivity and highlight some of the concerns that are surrounding this rapidly developed rail project).
This is a country whose people have historically travelled by train; there has been a boom in air travel recently, but if the government continues to play its cards right (or wrong, again see below), this may well be a people happy to return to the tracks, rather than continuing to take to the airways.
And if this experience is anything to go by, that’s no bad idea. I must say from a personal point of view, I would choose this 300-mile train journey in roughly 2 hours, with half an hour cab ride each end, over the shorter flight and longer airport waiting time and travel. These trains are comfy enough, the seats recline and the legroom is fine, they could be a bit wider, but then I could be a bit smaller, and the average Chinese person actually is. Plus, give me a choice of looking out at some fields through a landscape-wide window or a pokey view of some clouds from a plane porthole and I’ll take the fields all day long.
I have also come across quite a few Chinese people who are not actually that enamoured by the air travel experience. If you don’t have much of a choice and money isn’t a factor but time is, which no doubt it often is, then the plane is for you. But when you’ve got more of a choice then that decision is not so straightforward. Whether the majority are able to ride these trains or not, there is a lot of pride swilling about at present, and they have got a pretty amazing system in development to be excited about. These developments may well also have some considerable environmental benefits, if they are not too careful.
However, there are some logistical and quality concerns arising from this new system, a couple of which I will outline below these brief references to Xi’an’s new station:
- The new station is simply named Xi’an North (Station) 西安北(站) Xī’ān Běi (Zhàn). Even though the old station is North of the City Wall it is the new one that is actually called the North Station.
- It is a 20-30 minute taxi ride from the Bell Tower area, depending on traffic, and about 20-30元. From the South Chang’An Lu/ Da Yan Ta area it costs about 45元.
- You can take bus 266 from the old station just outside the North Wall. The new station is an out-of-the way spot at the moment but taxis arrive en-masse when the trains do, so getting a cab home isn’t a problem.
- At the time of writing you needed your ID or Passport to buy a ticket. You are supposed to be able to buy a ticket from any of the train ticket windows around the city, but most of the attendants didn’t know what the procedure was for foreigners and said they couldn’t do it. In the end, we bought ours very easily at the main ticket window outside the old train station. You can of course use various agents, hotels and hostels to buy them for you – but they may well still need your passport and, depending on the regulations at that time, you too.
- There are at present only a few opportunities for noshing at the station; a couple of noodle bars, a couple of mini supermarkets, and the ubiquitous KFC and McDonalds.
- The train stops at Lintong, Weinan and Huashan in Shaanxi, and goes onto Lingbao, Sanmenxia, Mianchi, Luoyang, Gongyi and Zhengzhou in Henan.
- The price of the economy ticket to Zhengzhou from Xi’an is 240元. The first class ticket is 390元 but the carriages do seem to be exactly the same, the only difference seemingly being that the first class passengers get a gift box of some kind.
That’s it for useful tips, now a couple of the issues that are hanging over this new high-speed rail project. I will begin with a comment from Professor Zhao Jian of the Northern Transport University, that was originally noted in the China Daily but is here taken from the eChinacities website:
“The early completion of the Beijing-Shanghai route will be a source of pride, and a boost to the public image of high-speed rail travel. Whether it proves to be a thorn in the side of the economy or a trailblazing totem is still unclear.”
One particularly well-noted perspective of concern comes from Patrick Chovanec, firstly in his article in the Chinese Economic Review and then continued on his blog, Chovanec: An American Perspective From China. In these two articles he highlights what seems to be considered the original motivation behind the rapid development of this High Speed Rail system.
The aim was to reduce the level of passengers on the existing rail network, so freeing up capacity for freight trains, principally to transport more coal, which in turn would allow the road networks to become free of a large number of the freight trucks that have been leading to those recent traffic jams of quite epic proportions.
The problem that is outlined by Chovanec is that the new high-speed rail system is not only creating huge public debt, but is also actually pricing out of the market the majority of traditional train users. A consequence of the high ticket prices that are needed to, over the long term, erode that debt. Thus the take up on the high-speed network is actually coming from those passengers who would probably have otherwise flown. Which obviously means there is no extra capacity being filtered back through to the older train network and road system, defeating the original purpose of these new high speed rail links altogether. Chovanec suggests that the focus here should be on investing in a ’robust and efficient logistics network’.
Another concern that has only recently come to light, with the recent sacking of Liu Zhijun, China’s Rail Minister for the last 7 years and champion of this high-speed rail network, revolves around the long-term financial viability and safety of the new network. Zhijun has been removed for what has been referred to as “severe violations of discipline”, which in a Chinese context seems to refer to corrupt practices.
And, with his successor immediately making a statement confirming the Rail Ministry’s focus on quality and safety, rumours abound that short cuts may have been taken to keep these exceptionally high costs to relatively low levels, comparatively. It is reported that a mile of track in China has been costing around $15 million, where as in the US it would cost between $40-80 million.
I don’t want to speak out of turn as no public statement seems to have been made about Liu Zhijun, but if he is going to be seen as a tyrant, he wouldn’t be the first tyrannical visionary to have got the ball rolling, or, here, the tracks laid. It might be better to get a quality and safety watchdog in place, one of rottweiler proportions, and then get on with seeing how this system can benefit the environment, and thus indirectly the majority, and not simply individual pockets and specific interests within the wider economy.
In conclusion, it does seem to me that even if the original motivation was different, getting people off planes and onto trains is no bad thing. It has though been noted that if these trains don’t run at capacity, then they don’t have a great deal of environmental benefit. Well, if it is the airline customers that can afford the new train ticket prices, then it is they who can help make this a more viable project, on economic and environmental grounds. If the government agencies can play their cards right, then maybe they can turn what some are beginning to refer to as a White Elephant, back into the Golden Dragon of 21C Chinese transportation. One thing’s for sure there is more to this project than simply a fast train. [Update: 08/03: See this article over at Silicon Hutong to further this discussion]