World’s fastest train
The world’s fastest train opens in China – just in time to whisk people away for the Chinese New Year celebrations.
“Wow, it is faster than a helicopter,” exclaimed Luo Rongguang as the G1049 Harmony Express eased its way out of Wuhan train station and instantly began to gain speed.
Within a minute of departure, the world’s fastest train was travelling at 120 miles per hour. By the time the Harmony Express, or Hexie Hao, hit its first bend, it was travelling at a steady 220 mph. As the lush rice paddies of Hunan, China’s breadbasket, blurred past the windows, the inside of the train was eerily still.
Wholly Chinese-built, albeit using technology from Siemens and Kawasaki, the Harmony Express is faster than Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains and France’s TGVs.
In testing, it reached speeds of nearly 250mph and it covers the 660 miles between Wuhan and Guangzhou, the equivalent of a journey from London to Edinburgh and back, in just three hours. The journey previously took almost 11 hours.
“It is just amazing,” said Mr Luo, a 33-year-old businessman from the Eastern city of Ningbo who was travelling to Guangzhou to visit factories.
“I remember when the minister for Rail said last year that China would one day have trains running at over 300mph. At the time, I thought it was just an empty boast, but now I can see it is not a dream at all.”
In fact, the Harmony Express is just the first step of an epic £480 billion project to build nearly 19,000 miles of new railways in the next five years, 8,000 miles of which will be tracks for high-speed trains.
China, the United States and Japan are locked in a race to build super-fast train routes. All three countries are hoping that trains, rather than polluting planes or cars, will once again form the backbone of their domestic travel network.
In the US, President Barack Obama’s administration has just proposed – as part of its economic stimulus package – to build or upgrade 7,100 miles of track so it can be high speed. But the timing and other details are uncertain, putting China well ahead in the race.
More than five million Chinese have travelled by train every day this month in the run-up to today’s New Year holiday, always the peak travel weekend with long queues at stations, airports and bus stations.
The high speed train routes to be rolled out during this Year of the Tiger, and in the two years that follow, will dramatically shrink the country, spreading economic development to the countryside and binding together unruly regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang.
“I remember taking my first train back in 1989,” said Mr Luo. “It was one of the old green locomotives that roared with noise and travelled at 30mph. I travelled from Yichang, in Hubei province, to Xinjiang. It took seven days to make the journey. It was so hot that everyone was sitting with their shirts off, and the train was so crowded that it looked like a refugee camp.
“At each stop, there were people who pushed dumplings, beer, tea-smoked eggs and roast chickens through the windows. The passengers just dropped their rubbish on the floor, so cleaners had to pass through every hour or there would have been a mountain of debris. There was one lavatory for every 200 passengers and the queues were horrific.”
During the Chinese New Year period, trains across the country are crammed with migrants returning home from their factories, often carrying with them huge bags, livestock and cooking pots. More than 2.5 billion journeys are made across the land in the biggest human migration in the world.
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But aboard the Harmony Express, and at Wuhan’s brand new £1.5 billion French-designed railway station, everything is spotless.
For some, it is one of the most visible signs of how far China has come. By 2012 the train, which runs from the central hub of Wuhan to the capital of China’s manufacturing, Guangzhou, will extend all the way to Beijing, allowing passengers to zip from one end of China to the other in under eight hours.
“Our parents could never have afforded this train,” said Zhang Xiaowen, a 32-year-old woman from Dongguan, in South China, who was collecting her nine-year-old son from boarding school.
“But for our generation it is worth it. It is easier than getting the plane, and it is fast and clean. And you get a better type of passenger. There is no shoving and pushing on this train and people don’t jump in and out of the windows. I do not think I could ever go back to the ordinary train.”
Mrs Zhang, who runs a dry-cleaning shop and whose husband manages a factory, is typical of the rapidly-expanding Chinese middle class and its lofty aspirations.
It is not clear how China plans to pay for its great railway expansion, and the ticket prices of the Harmony Express have raised eyebrows. First class seats cost 780 yuan (£72) while second class is 490 yuan, the equivalent of one to two weeks’ wages of a factory worker.
Yet the build-it-and-they-will-come approach is so far unproven. While other trains are sold out days in advance, the shiny monitors at Wuhan station offered hundreds of last-minute tickets for many of the high-speed trains.
Meanwhile, China’s airlines have slashed prices in order to try to compete with the new train. China Southern has created a shuttle service between Wuhan and Guangzhou and cut fares to roughly the same price as a train ticket.
The economics of the new train routes are of little concern to China’s rich government, but hamper similar efforts in the US. Currently, Amtrak’s “Express” Acela service takes almost three hours to trundle between New York and Washington, at an average speed of 80mph.
The White House has dedicated $8 billion (£5.1 billion) in stimulus cash to improve the network, with President Barack Obama telling an audience in Florida that the new trains would be “fast and smooth; you don’t have to take off your shoes”. Thirteen corridors in 31 states will get the money, but it has emerged that less than half of the cash will be used for real high-speed trains, the rest will go on improving existing services.
Nothing illustrates the gulf between the rival economies more than the news that a new $7 billion “Super Speed” magnetic levitation train between Southern California and Las Vegas would be backed not by American finance, but by China’s Export-Import bank.
“I never imagined that I would be able to take a train like this,” said Fang Aiyun, a 77-year-old grandmother, as the Harmony Express pulled into her home town of Changsha. “But you know, we Chinese should have what other people have. We can afford it.”