The Chinese high-speed trains seem better than America's Amtrak, but some silence on the carriages would make travellers happy.
By Chen Weihua
China Daily/Asia News Network
A Chinese high-speed train is a thing of beauty, and the ride is very smooth.
While traveling from Beijing to Shanghai, I recalled a 10-minute video clip that went viral online last year that showed a foreigner balancing a coin on its edge on the window sill of a high-speed train doing the opposite journey from Shanghai to Beijing.
So I tried the same stunt. It worked easily, although, since I was using a dime which is not the best choice for such a show, it balanced for only 20 seconds before it toppled onto its side.
Compared with the Amtrak trains I frequently take between Washington and New York, China's high-speed train is much smoother and several times faster.
Running at 300 km per hour, the ride from Washington to the Big Apple would take only one hour and 20 minutes, less than half of the time by Acela, the express train now running between the two major US cities.
Former US Ambassador to China Stapleton Roy, who was born in Nanjing, praised China's high-speed train "as smooth as silk" in a congressional hearing two years ago. He complained that he could not even walk steadily on the Amtrak.
However, although the Amtrak rumbles along with a squeaking noise produced between the wheels and the rails, it has a Quiet Car that prohibits cellphone use and loud talking. Like a cocoon of silence, it is a great place for a read or to take a nap.
There is no such sanctuary on one of China's high-speed trains and having a good nap is almost impossible, as I found this week.
Two minutes after I closed my eyes I was awakened by a deafening woman's cry approaching from behind: "Any trash?" It was a crew member collecting garbage.
Just as I was falling asleep, another female voice came from the front, shouting: "Anyone want ice cream?"
Then came another crew member peddling fresh roasted coffee and hot tea, then another hawking snacks, and another selling fruits, and another lunch boxes and yet another with roasted chestnuts and Fuling cake, a special poria cocos pie from Beijing, all loudly shouting the wares they were trying to entice you with.
And as the train passed through Shandong province, the train loudspeaker started to promote its popular Dezhou-style braised chicken.
And the cellphones! They never stopped with some passengers yelling on the phone as they were on a soapbox making a speech.
I could tell the discomfort of some passengers harassed by such incessant human noise, although sadly, they did not speak up.
It is said the Quiet Car in Amtrak was the idea of some regular passengers.
In the early 2000s, some of the commuters on the Philadelphia to Washington leg of train 151 - an early morning Northeast Corridor train that travels southbound from Boston to Washington - had become fed up with the cellphone chatter. They pleaded with the conductor until he decided to informally set aside a single car as a noise-free zone.
It caught on, and soon Amtrak expanded the quiet zone to several trains. Such Quiet Cars can now be found not just in Northeast Corridor, but also the Chicago-to-Milwaukee Hiawatha service and the Capitol Corridor running between Sacramento and San Jose in California.
There is no doubt in my mind that China's high-speed trains should have such Quiet Cars.
It should start with the Shanghai-Beijing route, the busiest artery, and spread nationally. Only then will the high-speed train deserve its brand name Harmony.