Iron ar­ter­ies pump new life

The so­cial changes that high-speed trains have wrought add up to far more than the hours and min­utes saved

China Daily (Canada) - - RAILWAY - XIN DINGDING in Bei­jing and LIU KUN in Wuhan

When Zhou Fengy­ing took the 320-kilo­me­ter train ride from Wuhan to Yichang about 35 years ago, her em­ployer gave her a day off – to sleep off the rig­ors of what seemed like an im­pos­si­bly long jour­ney.

Zhou was an em­ployee of the ur­ban con­struc­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion of Yichang at the time and she fre­quently made such trips to the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of Hubei on lo­cal govern­ment busi­ness.

The trip lasted be­tween 11 and 12 hours, partly be­cause there was no di­rect rail link be­tween the two cities, and the trains had to use a track on which their speed was re­stricted to less than 40 km/h, says Zhou, now 60. In ad­di­tion, those crammed into the trains had to sur­vive the jour­ney in dowdy green car­riages that were grubby and had no air con­di­tion­ing.

“The trains were ab­so­lutely packed. Peo­ple oc­cu­pied any space they could find. I used to have peo­ple ly­ing un­der my seat and oth­ers be­side my feet.”

So in the 1990s when long-haul bus ser­vices be­gan run­ning, they were like a breath of fresh air, and Zhou seized the op­por­tu­nity to use them. These buses were more fre­quent than the trains, they were air-con­di­tioned and sud­denly travel time was halved, to less than six hours.

An­other cou­ple of decades on, those buses, which had seemed so ad­vanced, them­selves took a back seat when Zhou de­cided to travel to Wuhan to see her son. That day in 2012 she took one of the sparkling new high-speed trains that had been put on that year link­ing the two cities. The sti­fling, rack­ety trip that had once taken as much as 12 hours had now been trans­formed into a leisurely, smooth jaunt last­ing just two hours.

“The train was so clean and quiet,” Zhou says. “You could do a lot of dif­fer­ent things on the trip, like writ­ing and read­ing. I guess one rea­son the train was so clean was that it looked so good that any­one in­clined to lit­ter felt too em­bar­rassed to do so.”

In this 21st-cen­tury travel, too, noisy ar­gu­ments over seats had given way to peace and ci­vil­ity, Zhou says.

“I guess one rea­son for that is that since it’s just two hours to Wuhan, peo­ple were not as hot­headed as they used to be if they had to stand.”

As the ar­ter­ies of China’s high­speed railway net­work have con­tin­ued to grow over the past eight years, they have also de­liv­ered ef­fi­cient and punc­tual ser­vice at highly af­ford­able prices, and have greatly changed the way Chi­nese re­gard get­ting about the coun­try.

The first high-speed railway line, 120 km long, be­tween Bei­jing and Tian­jin, opened in 2008, and by the end of last year an­other 19,000 km of high-speed rail lines had been laid and put into ser­vice. That equates to an av­er­age of 2,700 km of new lines each year – about the to­tal length of the high­speed rail lines in Ja­pan.

In­deed, China now has the world’s long­est high-speed rail net­work, and it accounts for 60 per­cent of the world’s to­tal, Sheng Guangzu, gen­eral man­ager of China Railway Corp, said in Jan­uary.

One change this sprawl­ing net­work has wrought is peo­ple go­ing on sight­see­ing trips far away from home over three-day hol­i­days, or at­tend­ing wed­dings far away over the week­end, which in the past would have been re­garded as im­prac­ti­cal.

Zhou’s son, her only child, moved to Wuhan sev­eral years ago, and she says she had thought it would be dif­fi­cult for her to see the fam­ily that of­ten or for her to take care of her grand­son. She also had her own par­ents to look af­ter in Yichang.

“If I helped them with the baby in Wuhan, I could not take care of my par­ents in Yichang. If I brought the baby back to Yichang he would need to go to Wuhan for vac­cine shots from time to time, and that was im­pos­si­ble with­out good trans­port.”

But that has now changed, she says. Her sec­ond grand­child, born last year, now lives with her in Yichang. “When the baby needs vac­cine shots and when her par­ents miss her I hop on the train and head to Wuhan.”

The fast rail trans­port net­work is also hav­ing a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the way the coun­try does busi­ness. In­land cities that had lit­tle ap­peal to in­vestors be­cause of a paucity of good trans­port links have now be­come at­trac­tive. Par­tic­u­larly since the cen­tral govern­ment has called for eco­nomic re­struc­tur­ing and in­dus­trial up­grad­ing, in­land cities linked to the na­tional high-speed rail net­work have be­come pre­ferred des­ti­na­tions for tra­di­tional in­dus­tries mov­ing their op­er­a­tions from coastal ar­eas.

One ex­am­ple is Chen­zhou in Hu­nan prov­ince, a city that used to rely heav­ily on min­ing. The city is on the bor­der of Hu­nan and Guang­dong prov­inces, but is closer to Guangzhou, the lat­ter’s cap­i­tal and the coun­try’s eco­nomic en­gine, than to other cities in Hu­nan. How­ever, un­til 2009 the fastest train from Chen­zhou to Guangzhou took six hours. This acted as a dead­weight on Chen­zhou when­ever it sought in­vest­ment, and lo­cal of­fi­cials in charge of at­tract­ing in­vest­ment were of­ten thwarted as they com­peted with cities with air­ports or with high­way ac­cess.

That all changed in 2009 when the Wuhan- Guangzhou high­speed railway opened, and sud­denly Chen­zhou found it­self just 90 min­utes away. That re­duc­tion in travel time and costs has prompted a num­ber of com­pa­nies to set up pro­duc­tion cen­ters in Chen­zhou, in­clud­ing Royal Philips NV and Delta Group. In 2014 the city shot up in pro­vin­cial rank­ings to be be­hind only the cap­i­tal, Chang­sha, in its use of for­eign cap­i­tal, me­dia re­ported.

Ex­perts say there are many other small cities in China’s western and cen­tral prov­inces and re­gions that can ben­e­fit from the sprawl­ing high-speed railway net­work as Chen­zhou has.

Liu Bin, a re­searcher at the com­pre­hen­sive trans­port in­sti­tute at the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment and Re­search Com­mis­sion, says the high-speed railways can help make in­land ar­eas more com­pet­i­tive in raw ma­te­ri­als and manufacturing.

The Govern­ment Work Re­port that Premier Li Ke­qiang de­liv­ered in March said the high-speed railway net­work will be 30,000 km long by the end of 2020, link­ing 80 per­cent of ma­jor cities na­tion­wide. It means 11,000 km of high­speed railways will have been laid out in five years, or 2,200 km a year on av­er­age.

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