China aims to get rail service up to speed

New bullet trains ease crowded system -- but at a price

May 06, 2007|By David Pierson | David Pierson,Los Angeles Times

BEIJING -- China has entered the high-speed-rail era. The signs are hard to miss.

"Sixth national speed-up," proclaims a red banner the size of a billboard in the middle of the Beijing train station. "Harmonious, made-in-China" bullet trains.

In the station in Tianjin, posters of smiling families in first-class seats line the walls, under the heading "Pursuit of Harmony."

In a country where vacation season means two or three passengers for every seat, improvements to the rail system are heralded with great fanfare.

On April 18, two weeks before one of the nation's busiest weeklong holidays, 280 domestically made high-speed passenger trains were added to China's crowded and outdated tracks.

Traveling 60 mph faster than most of their predecessors, the trains can cut travel time by a third and will add about 300,000 seats a day, state media reported. A record 150 million travelers were projected during the May Day holiday.

Upgrading to high speed isn't cheap. The tickets cost as much as 50 percent more than those for conventional trains. Already, the Internet is awash in criticism that the new service is out of the reach of migrant workers and others who need it most.

Nothing comes easily for China's transportation system, which has been overwhelmed by the nation's staggering economic growth.

Experts say China's 48,000 miles of railway meet just 60 percent of freight service demand. Passenger trains carry 3 million travelers daily, except during the three Golden Week holidays, when the system is even more crowded. Horror stories abound of price gouging and passengers in adult diapers standing for 30-hour journeys - if they're lucky enough to get a ticket.

"Our transportation system has always been behind, and it greatly hinders the development of our economy," said Ji Jialun, a professor at Beijing Transportation University. "It's a bottleneck. It's good the government has realized it, but we don't have enough money to build new lines."

The increasing industrial demands and mobility of China's 1.3 billion people have led the government to plan for 14 new national highways and the expansion of 12 major seaports and 10 airports, including those in Shanghai and Beijing, by 2010, the New China News Agency reported. An 82-foot rapid-transit vehicle with room for 300 passengers - reportedly the world's largest bus - was exhibited in March at a Shanghai convention and will be used in Beijing and Hangzhou.

But it's the aerodynamic bullet train that has gotten the most attention. China's leaders have long had a preoccupation with fast trains, rolling out the so-called speed-ups every few years.

Ji, the transportation professor, said there was a great deal of pride in unveiling the bullet trains, which are on par with trains in Europe and Japan.

Images of the shiny white cars with blue streaks on their sides have been splashed across national newspapers, heralded as a triumph of Chinese engineering.

"It's really cutting-edge," said Luo Jing, a 36-year-old businessman who knelt on a platform to take a cell phone picture of a train's bug-spattered nose after completing a commute at 125 mph from Beijing to Tianjin.

Luo's journey had begun an hour earlier after a mad crush to get on the train at the Beijing station. Though all passengers had been assigned seats - most of them paying $5.50 - they pushed and squeezed toward two single gates where a pair of employees punched a hole in the edge of each ticket.

Inside the air-conditioned cars, female conductors in navy-blue or maroon uniforms paced the compartments helping passengers find their seats. The reclining chairs, upholstered in seaweed green and purple faux velvet, may have looked like something from a forgettable sofa of the 1970s, but they were a far cry from some of China's lesser trains, on which a "soft seat" ticket is considered a luxury.

Li Yun, 45, who was returning to Tianjin after visiting Beijing to care for her aging aunt, sat by the window, arms folded and a little bothered that she couldn't find a more affordable ride home.

"I don't think the cheaper trains are still around," she said. "This is definitely more comfortable, but it still costs more. If there were cheaper trains, even if they were slower, I'd take it."

Hao Jinsong, a law student who sued the Railway Ministry last year for raising ticket prices during the holiday weeks, criticized the state-run enterprise for failing to hold hearings to set prices for the bullet trains. He also complained about the price of food on the bullets, which can be twice as much as on older trains.

Not everyone was upset, however.

A 47-year-old businessman who would give only his family name, Wu, sat comfortably in his $6.60 first-class seat as the train passed factories, distant pagodas and discolored streams. His section was sold out.

"It's the right time for this kind of service," he said. "Of course, it depends on your income, but it's OK for me. It reminds me of the bullet train in Japan."

David Pierson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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