With air delays in China worsening while its high-speed rail network develops at breakneck pace, perhaps it ’s time to swap planes for trains?
Not long after the gleaming high-speed train departs from smog-smothered Urumqi, China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang spills out into an empty, alien landscape. Martian red earth stretches for miles to the distant f laming mountains, interrupted only by flocks of white wind turbines with swan like blades that turn gracefully.
This is a far-flung corner of China that, despite being rich in key resources such as oil and natural gas, has for decades been notoriously difficult to access by land.
In 2014, however, the groundbreaking Lanzhou to Xinjiang high-speed rail (HSR) line linked this remote region to China’s ever-growing high-speed rail network, which now has tentacles from Harbin in the northeast to Kunming in the southwest.
The 2,000-kilometre journey from Urumqi to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, now takes just nine hours (slashed from nearly 20) and covers some amazing scenery.
Add to that the spotless Western-style toilets, comfortable seats and crystal-clear windows, and it speaks volumes about the money China is pumping into its rail network – RMB801 billion (USD117 billion) last year alone, with an equally generous budget for 2018.
Train travel in China – even in sleeper class on regular overnight trains – has been turned into a highly palatable experience and is quite possibly the country’s best-kept secret.
LEADING THE WAY
Then again, in 21st-century China, fast journeys on plush trains are nothing to write home about.
China has held the record for the fastest commercial electric train in the world since 2004, with the Shanghai Maglev (short for “magnetic levitation”) able to run at a top speed of 431km/h, surpassing Japan which famously pioneered the world’s first bullet train – the Shinkansen – in October 1964 for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The new “wheels-on” high-speed rail network in China offers some of the fastest high-speed trains in the world, typically operating at around 300km/h. It is also the longest HSR network in the world, measuring 25,000km at the end of 2017, and accounting for an incredible 66 per cent of total high-speed rail track globally. According to the China Daily, this network transported around 1.7 billion people in 2017 – almost half of the world’s quota for HSR passengers.
What is perhaps most impressive, however, is the sheer speed of its transformation.
“China’s rise to become a high-speed rail power has occurred just in the last decade or so; the speed of development has been phenomenal,” says Dr Gerald Chan, an expert on Chinese international relations and author of Understanding China’s New Diplomacy: Silk Roads and Bullet Trains.
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