World Focus

China's rail ambitions run at full speed

Citizens' lifestyle, travel patterns have been transformed since its first bullet train began running a decade ago

When financial consultant Wang Jie was seconded from Tianjin to Beijing in 2015, he moved to the capital by himself, returning to see his young family only on weekends.

Within a year, he moved back to Tianjin. He would rather spend an additional hour on the 300km two-way commute, a decision made possible by the zippy high-speed rail (HSR) connection between the two cities.

"My daughter is only six, and by going home every night, I get to spend more time with her," he told The Straits Times.

With the new-generation high-speed bullet train Fuxing (meaning rejuvenation) put into service for key cities last month, travelling time for the 34-year-old to get from Tianjin Railway Station to Beijing South Station will be cut from 30 minutes to under 25 minutes.

Fully designed and manufactured in China, the Fuxing trains, which can hit a top speed of 400kmh, will run at 350kmh from Thursday - faster than Japan's famous Shinkansen trains at 300kmh, and France's TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), the world's fastest so far with operating speeds of 320 kmh.

Fuxing trains will cut travel time from six to 41/2 hours for the Beijing-Shanghai line, China's busiest high-speed rail route.

CHANGING TRAVEL PATTERNS

Mr Wang is just one out of millions of Chinese whose lives have been transformed since Beijing embarked on the world's most ambitious high-speed rail development plan.

In 2007, China embarked on a national "speed-up" campaign, and rolled out its first bullet train line connecting Beijing to Tianjin in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

It has been full steam ahead since: China has spent an estimated 2.4 trillion yuan (S$492 billion) building 22,000km of high-speed rail lines, more than the total railway length in 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded.

The Chinese have also proven the mantra that if you build it, they will come. High-speed rail ridership has grown at an average of 30 per cent a year since 2008, and national rail operator China Railway Corporation (CRC) said there have been more than five billion passenger trips to date.

With an estimated 1.44 billion trips expected to be made this year, rides on high-speed trains are projected to exceed half of all train journeys in China for the first time, said a CRC spokesman.

Except for a few lines connecting key cities, the state-run programme remains in the red. Nevertheless, China views the programme as one carrying national prestige, and has touted it as a key infrastructure to improve people's lives and mobility.

Analysts said the biggest change wrought by China's high-speed rail projects is in domestic travel and tourism, followed closely by the impact on work.

Meals being prepared for distribution at the Shijiazhuang high-speed rail station. Passengers can pre-order meals through the 12306.cn website and app and have their meals delivered to their seats. China's high-speed rail lines are mostly straight wi
China has spent around 2.4 trillion yuan (S$492 billion) building 22,000km of high-speed rail lines, more than the total railway length in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was founded. PHOTO: FACEBOOK ACCOUNT OF XINHUA NEWS AGENCY

The network's rapid expansion means that 29 of China's 31 provinces and regions are today connected by bullet trains, and more Chinese are choosing to ride rather than fly. This is because train terminals tend to be located closer to city centres, and, unlike at airports, security screenings and check-ins are much speedier.

The high-speed rail's almost-perfect punctuality rate, compared to Chinese airports' notoriously high number of delays, has also made choosing bullet trains a no-brainer for many, like civil servant Hu Du.

Mr Hu, 30, who works in Tianjin, recalled that as recently as six years ago, it would have taken him 13 hours by train to visit his parents in Anhui province, or close to six hours by plane because of transfers

Meals being prepared for distribution at the Shijiazhuang high-speed rail station. Passengers can pre-order meals through the 12306.cn website and app and have their meals delivered to their seats. China's high-speed rail lines are mostly straight wi
Meals being prepared for distribution at the Shijiazhuang high-speed rail station. Passengers can pre-order meals through the 12306.cn website and app and have their meals delivered to their seats. PHOTO: CHINAFOTOPRESS

The high-speed rail has cut this journey to less than five hours.

"Ticket prices are comparable, but the journey on rail is so much more comfortable," he told The Straits Times. "These days, if I'm travelling anywhere within five hours, I'll opt for rail over a flight."

This change in travel patterns has had a drastic impact on Chinese carriers' bottom lines. Major carriers like China Southern and China Eastern, and smaller ones such as Joy Air have all taken a hit in recent years.

Meals being prepared for distribution at the Shijiazhuang high-speed rail station. Passengers can pre-order meals through the 12306.cn website and app and have their meals delivered to their seats. China's high-speed rail lines are mostly straight wi
Passengers taking souvenir shots with a Fuxing train at the Tianjin Railway Station on Aug 21, the day the new-generation bullet trains, the Fuxing, were put into operation on the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity Railway. PHOTO: XINHUA

GLOBAL PLAYER

I used to be very envious of the HSR networks in Japan and Taiwan, just like Deng Xiaoping was when he rode the Shinkansen in 1978... But now, it feels like we've surpassed them. If China says we're No. 2, I don't think anyone dares say they're No. 1.

MR HU DU, a Chinese civil servant who has replaced domestic air travel with rail if the journey is less than five hours.

"The expansion of the high-speed rail network has a significant impact on the short- to medium-distance aviation services," said Air China in its annual results this year.

It added that airlines find it difficult to compete with HSR's "greater network coverage, higher travelling speed, increased frequencies and extended operating hours".

Sociologist Chen Hongsheng of Nanjing Southeast University said China's vast HSR network has also heralded what he calls a "high-mobility era", where people like Mr Wang who live and work further apart are becoming commonplace.

"The separation of workplace and residence and the numbers of 'double city' households are increasing... in the Beijing-Tianjin and Shanghai-Nanjing regions," he noted.

A survey he conducted last year found that almost a quarter of high-speed rail passengers interviewed on the Beijing-Shanghai line said they had relocated out of these cities since the line was built.

EXPORTING HSR TECHNOLOGY

China's HSR technology has also matured enough to become what state media hails as a key pillar of the nation's "going out" strategy: The Chinese government is promoting export of its rail technology and trains as a way to raise its global competitiveness and influence.

Mr He Huawu, chief engineer of CRC, told China Daily last month that the new improved Fuxing trains, which have replaced the Hexie (meaning Harmony) model, will be China's main high-speed train export in the future.

China's high-speed trains have been sold to 102 countries and regions, while US$18 billion (S$24.2 billion) worth of HSR-related agreements were signed last year, a 40 per cent increase from 2015. That year, it outbid Japan to win a US$5.5 billion project in Indonesia.

  • 45,000km Total length of high-speed rail track by 2030 - more than enough to encircle the globe, and more than double the current 22,000km, which is about 60 per cent of the world's total.

    29 Of China's 31 provinces and regions are connected by high-speed rail.

    350kmh Speed at which China's next-generation bullet train Fuxing will run from Thursday. It was put into service in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area on Aug 21.

    500k Number of passengers taking China's busiest HSR route from Beijing to Shanghai per day

Beijing has also secured a high-speed line project from the Thai-Laos border to Bangkok.

China and Japan are in the running to build the 350km Kuala Lumpur-Singapore HSR line. The tender for that line will be called by the end of the year.

Last week, Japan's bullet-train diplomacy received a boost when visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched India's first bullet-train project in Ahmedabad, a 508km line connecting Mumbai with the biggest city in Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat.

A Bloomberg report said Japan's sales pitch revolves around quality - its network boasts a record of zero fatal accidents in more than half a century.

In July 2011, a crash in Wenzhou killed 40 passengers, deepening worries over whether safety standards had been compromised by China's breakneck pace of development and corruption during construction. China has since managed to burnish its credentials as a leading global player in the field. Statistics show that its high-speed trains are, today, one of the world's safest transportation systems.

"I used to be very envious of the HSR networks in Japan and Taiwan, just like Deng Xiaoping was when he rode the Shinkansen in 1978," said Mr Hu. "But now, it feels like we've surpassed them. If China says we're No. 2, I don't think anyone dares say they're No. 1."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'China's rail ambitions run at full speed'. Print Edition | Subscribe