4 years ago (has it been that long?!) I wrote two very long, detailed posts about train travel in China. It explained what a train station was like, how to get a ticket, the different classes of seats etc, etc. And at the time it was quite useful. Now? It’s basically outdated.
Sure, you can still find some of the old, slow trains chugging about, but they are less and less common as China is being taken over by the high-speed train craze. Several years ago, I took my first high-speed train. It was somewhere up north, near Beijing (the capital city was first to get the main lines and since they they have been concentrating on the east coast where the bulk of the population lives.)
I remember the high-speed train ticket was pricier than the regular train, but worth it. There was a special waiting area for high-speed train customers only which took us far away from the unwashed masses that take the slow train. It was a cleaner waiting room, with tiled floors mopped till they shone and employees in sharp uniforms. Everyone was given a free bottle of water, and when we boarded there wasn’t the frenzied pushing and shoving because everyone had a seat (on the slow trains they sell standing room only tickets, but not on the high-speed trains.) The train ride itself was quite comfortable. Clean, fresh air (no smoking allowed anywhere) and plenty of room to stand up and stretch out. It was like flying in first class.
Now, high speed trains are nothing special. In fact, you often don’t even have a choice. There is only high-speed trains available.
Take, for example, my “local” line of Xiamen to Shenzhen (Shenzhen is the port city to Hong Kong). Despite the train opening a mere 10 months ago you now can’t take a slow train if you wanted. The high speed train has cut the travel time from 11-15 hours down to just 3.5. Talk about an improvement.
Some experts say the costs of China’s rapid high-speed train line increase won’t ever meet demand, and it will take years to make back the investment. To give you an idea, it’s estimated the Xiamen to Shenzhen line costs 41.7 billion yuan (a little more than 6 billion US$–the government is mum on the exact price, but media outlets have estimated). The train costs 150 rmb one-way for a regular seat (about $25. A first class seat is a few bucks more.)
When the only way to get to Shenzhen was by a 11-15 hour train ride, most people opted for a plane ticket. But now, they are taking the train instead. I was told to buy my ticket early as they all regularly sell-out despite the fact there are 27 trains daily. And they recently announced they will be adding even more trains due to demand. The upside is taking away all those flying passengers is a win environmentally. The downside is that migrant workers and poor people can’t afford the new trains, and no longer have the option of a slower, cheaper train to take.
Since there are now so many high-speed trains, they have been building new high-speed train railway stations. Giant, shiny new facilities with modern technology which makes the lines (and the pushing and shoving) less of a hassle. The train ticket acts as a sort of subway card, which you have to swipe to go through the turnstile instead of pushing your way through the giant gates waving your tickets frantically for the worker to check. (You also need to swipe it to get out of the train station.)
As for a customer, I like the new trains. They are clean, convenient, and open up a lot of the country to me. I can pop on down to Hong Kong for the weekend, something I would never do if I had to take a plane or a long train. Even before, when I would buy the first class seats in the slow train, you still had to wait in the dingy train stations, fight to get on, and deal with smoking passengers and dirty bathrooms. Since these trains are new they are much cleaner and people treat them nicer (You see less spitting and throwing garbage on the new trains).
But now the masses are riding it, they are beginning to show a bit of wear and tear. Both bathrooms on the train car I rode in recently were broken, and there was piss and water everywhere. Not so nice. (And none of the fancily dressed hostesses were taking care of it.) But I forgave that issue when I heard that China has the highest passenger rate in the world with 1.33 million people per day. Per day. That’s about the population of America riding a train every two-days. And that data is from 2012, the last statistics I could find. I’m sure the number is higher today.
China isn’t slowing down with their high speed trains anytime soon either. In fact, they are breaking out of the confines of their country and going global. There are plans to connect China with most southeast Asian countries by train (right now the lines connecting China to Laos and Vietnam are underway. The Malaysian and Singapore lines will be built later.)
Their ambition doesn’t end there. They want to build lines that connect China with Africa and Europe and they are even mulling over an idea that would connect China to the US via a 125-mile long tunnel from Russia to Alaska. They also won a bid to be the builders of a new high-speed rail line in Mexico.
Not to suggest that everything is rosy with the high speed trains. The giant crash in 2011 of the Wenzhou line made major news and put a damper on things. What happened was one train had been struck by lightning and stalled with mechanical troubles while the train behind it, blissfully unaware, smashed into it. 40 people died, hundreds were hurt and the government tried to, literally, bury the evidence so it didn’t get out. (They were caught burying some of the wreckage while the search for survivors was still on. They were more worried about embarrassing news getting out then saving lives.) That wasn’t bad enough but of course the entire industry has been plagued with accusations of corruption for years.
So, it’s not the flawless, perfect model to hold up to admire, but as someone who has been living here for awhile, I have seen big changes, and I’m all for it. China’s a big country with a large population that needs to get around. As a consumer it has become not only easier, but more pleasant, and as cars become more and more of an environmental issue here, these trains can only play a bigger role.
And who knows what’s gonna happen in the future. Maybe one day I’ll be going back to the US via a train. Seeing as how that plane flight is one of my least favorite things in the world, I might be willing to give it a shot.