The world’s longest high speed railway line connects Beijing and Guangzhou in just 8 hours

10 May 2014

The world’s longest high speed railway line connects Beijing and Guangzhou in just 8 hours

The Beijing/Guangzhou line – the world’s longest high speed railway line − opened on 26 December 2012 after a seven year building operation. The first section, between Guangzhou and Wuhan, started operating in 2009, followed by Wuhan-Zhengzhou and, finally, Zhengzhou-Beijing. The line is expected to reach Hong Kong by 2015.

The high speed line enables passengers to travel 2,298 kilometres in less than eight hours – a third of the time it would take the fastest standard train to cover the same distance. It passes through Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou, Wuhan and Changsha, the capitals of four of China’s most heavily populated provinces. In its first year it carried around 95 million passengers, which equates to an average of 260,000 people per day – over a third of Macao’s total population.

One of the line’s trains, the CRH 380-TC02, can carry up to 1,000 passengers in its sixteen slinking white carriages. It snakes through the urban jungle of Beijing so smoothly it is hard to believe that fifteen minutes after leaving Beijing’s Western Station the train is already travelling at 308 km per hour. Electronic panels in each carriage show the train’s speed as well as the name of the next station.

On 26 December last year, the first anniversary of the line’s operation, the train left Beijing at 09:58 (two minutes ahead of time) and arrived in Guangzhou at 17:56 (three minutes before it was due). A little over punctilious, perhaps, but an awesome speed for the distance.

As the train set off, the landscape outside the large windows slipped by as if it were being sucked away. It was impossible to read the names of the stations the train passed through, and when another CRH 380 went past at the same speed, the meeting lasted only a couple of seconds.

The first stop was Shijiazhuang. A few smokers jumped onto the platform and quickly lit up a cigarette. They only had two minutes before re-boarding. Smoking is not allowed on the platforms, but by the time a member of the railway staff noticed the infraction the train was on its way again.

A couple of hostesses regularly passed through the carriages pushing a trolley of drinks and biscuits. A cappuccino, the closest thing to coffee, cost 18 yuan. The dining cabin, with its tablecloths and pots of plastic flowers also served meals.

The closed circuit television, with screens that hung down from the carriage ceilings, showed documentaries, soap operas and cartoons. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were in the mix. Most of the passengers, though, only had eyes for their smartphones or tablets. Some of them slept. A silent cleaning lady with a dustpan and brush occasionally came by to collect rubbish. Some men played cards for money, and judging by the amounts on the table, they were set to win – or lose – hundreds of yuan.

Around 300 million Chinese are expected to move into the cities by 2030 – to existing cities and to those that are being built across the country, particularly next to the new train stations. The area around Zhengzhou-East, the second stop the CHR 380-TC02 makes, is an enormous building site, with dozens of apartment blocks under construction. All you can see on the unpaved roads is builders in yellow helmets and machines – cranes, diggers, concrete mixers, to name but a few. In Wuhan, an important rail hub, the CHR stopped next to an old double-decker train. The difference between the two, in terms of design and comfort, is clear and confirms that China is living in a number of eras at the same time.

In Changsha-South the station itself is not finished and some platforms are still closed. Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, is south of the Yangtze, the world’s third-largest river, after the Amazon and the Nile. (The Chinese call it “Chang Jiang” – Long River). The landscape here is much greener. There is a lot of water, hills filled with vegetation and villages dotted with yellow houses. There are also lots of tunnels, some of which are several kilometres long, and the train travels through them without slowing down. The CRH 380 was designed to travel at an average of 350 km/hour. In a test carried out between Wuhan and Guangzhou it reached 394.2 km/hour but it does not usually exceed 308 km/hour. (By the standards of the Union International des Chemins de Fer, high speed rail starts at 200 km/hour).

“It was one of the longest train journeys of my life, but it was very comfortable,” said a 57 year-old European passenger. “I never thought that those eight hours would go by so quickly.” Another passenger said: “The high-speed train is worthwhile, particularly for journeys between cities along the way. The distance between Zhengzhou and Wuhan, for example, is about a 920 kilometre round trip, and the journey takes just over three hours by train. You can get there and back on the same day.”

The cheapest tickets from Beijing to Guangzhou cost 862 yuan − 200 yuan less than a flight, though a flight is faster, at three hours. In “Executive” class, the most expensive of the train’s three classes, the price rises to 2,724, which is almost twice the average monthly salary in Beijing.

Riding the Iron Rooster – By Train through China by Paul Theroux is a classic of modern travel literature. When the book was published in 1988, France already had its TGV (“Train à Grande Vitesse”) and the famous Japanese “bullet train” (“Shinkansen”) had been operating for over 20 years, but at the time steam engines were still being manufactured in Datong, northern China. The train mentioned in the title, the “Iron Rooster”, took four and a half days to travel over the 3,700 kilometres between Beijing and Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. By 2017 the journey should take just 12 hours.

In the last seven years China has built the world’s largest high speed rail network, overtaking the countries that pioneered the technology. The first line, a 117-kilometre section between Beijing and Tianjin, started operating in 2008. At the end of 2013, the total length of the network – from Harbin, next to Siberia, to Nanning, to the south of the Tropic of Cancer – reached 13,000 kilometres. The speedy development was overshadowed by a serious accident, which killed 40 people in 2011, along with a corruption case involving the budget provided to the Railways Ministry. Last July, a former railway sector minister, Liu Zhijun, was sentenced to death with a two-year suspension for taking bribes of 64.6 million yuan.

The opening of the Beijing/Guangzhou line coincided with the birthday of former president Mao Zedong. Another notable line − Beijing/Shanghai – opened the day before the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in 2011. “The significance of the Chinese high speed railway goes way beyond the railway line itself,” said the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the CCP. “The high-speed network has increased national confidence in China (…) and demonstrated the superiority of the socialist system,” one of the newspaper’s editors wrote.

During the last imperial dynasty the Chinese government was initially opposed to the railway, and only in 1881 did it authorise construction of the first railway line. At the end of the 19th century, when the United States already had 300,000 kilometres of railway line, China had less than 1,000 kilometres – a lot less than Japan, India and Russia. Construction of the Transiberian railway – the world’s longest, covering almost 9,500 kilometres – was already under way and in 1904 it reached Vladivostok, in the North Pacific.

This time China doesn’t want to be left behind. (Macao Magazine –  António Caeiro – Lusa news agency in Beijing)

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