Can high-speed rail deliver?

The high-speed train to Shanghai pulls out of Beijing South Railway Station and slips through the city like a tiger ready to pounce. Once it reaches the city limits it flexes and launches down the track.

The experience is almost surreal but doesn’t quite match expectations. There is no head-snapping thrust. There is no burst of noise, no rush of air.  Cocooned in a passenger cabin it all seems too smooth and too normal.

Slicing through the countryside three times faster than any road traffic, the sensation of super-high speed is best experienced by looking at the immediate foreground that passes too fast for the eye to focus. The farms and villages whip past in a constant stream as the in-cabin speedometer reads more than 300 kilometers an hour.

Hailed as a triumph of China’s ultra-fast modernization drive, the iconic Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway was inaugurated on June 30 and timed to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China on July 1.

It links China’s two largest cities and is the country’s 17th high-speed railway line. The all-new exclusive-use rail line runs 1,318 kilometers from city center to city center, and cost 220.9 billion yuan ($32 billion) to build.

Critics, controversy and tragedy

Like all bold and ultra-ambitious projects, China’s high-speed railway projects have attracted critics and controversy, and last Saturday what was supposed to be the unthinkable occurred. Two trains collided on the Beijing to Fuzhou railway line which has claimed 39 lives and injured more than 200. Its fumbled rescue and publicity effort has produced public outrage that remains in full voice.

The accident has also caused an apparent huge decline in passengers, even though the tragedy occurred on one of China’s upgraded “higher speed” rail lines, and not on a newly built, bullet train line like the one from Beijing to Shanghai.

Since the Wenzhou collision, 80 percent of Beijing Youth Travel Service’s clients have canceled their trips or demanded their rail tickets be changed to air tickets, the travel agency’s manager surnamed Xu told the Global Times.

Repeated calls to the Ministry of Railways went unanswered.

Despite the human ineptitude and the terrible tragedy, the high-speed trains are running on time and the ride is pleasant and otherworldly, at least until the novelty wears off.

Anna Lundskow, an American exchange student from Wisconsin who is studying in Tianjin was taking her first high-speed rail journey with some friends.

“The normal trains are dirty and ragged. The best thing about the high-speed is it’s so fast and smooth, and for us it’s cheaper,” said Lundskow.

During this reporter’s first trip on a high-speed train on July 20, previous reports of low ridership on some trains on the multi-stop Beijing to Shanghai route was confirmed. On the Beijing to Ji’nan leg only eight people were in the reporter’s carriage that had seats for more than 100. Only two passengers were seen in the business-class carriage.

On Monday four of the scheduled high-speed trains servicing Ji’nan were cancelled. A train attendant said too many trains on the line are serving too few passengers to Ji’nan. Sixty trains a day service the Beijing-Shanghai route.

Massive economic spin-off promised

Twenty-two new station stops have been built along the Beijing to Shanghai line and those cities have been promised that the trains will bring new economic opportunities and vast urban expansion.

One of the advantages of high-speed train travel was supposed to be the time saved not having to travel to a suburban airport. Yet, most of the new high-speed train stations, many of which resemble modern airport terminals have been built outside city centers.

The newly built Ji’nan West Railway Station on the outskirts of the city is far from the city center.

“It takes more than 40 minutes from the west station to the city center, and there are occasionally traffic congestions. So I would rather take a conventional train from the old station,” said a Ji’nan resident who travels to Beijing every week and asked his name not be used.

All along the route it appears obvious that it will take years for the promise of economic spin-off to be fulfilled.

Many city governments are planning massive new development zones around the newly-built stations in the hope of better connecting them to their urban centers.

Dezhou, a prefecture-level city that has a total population of 5.5 million in Shandong Province, has mapped out an ambitious development area adjacent to the new Dezhou East Station. So far not much of the new development has materialized as the shiny new, high-tech terminal remains surrounded by farmland.

Global Times

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