High-speed rail: All aboard

29 Aug 2018 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Fuxing bullet train, China

Not long after the gleaming high-speed train departs from smog-smothered Urumqi, China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang spills out into an empty, alien landscape. Martian red earth stretches for miles to the distant flaming mountains, interrupted only by flocks of white wind turbines with swan-like blades that turn gracefully.

This is a far-flung corner of China that, despite being rich in key resources such as oil and natural gas, has for decades been notoriously difficult to access by land.

In 2014, however, the groundbreaking Lanzhou to Xinjiang high-speed rail (HSR) line linked this remote region to China’s ever-growing high-speed rail network, which now has tentacles from Harbin in the northeast to Kunming in the southwest.

The 2,000-kilometre journey from Urumqi to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, now takes just nine hours (slashed from nearly 20) and covers some amazing scenery.

Add to that the spotless Western-style toilets, comfortable seats and crystal-clear windows, and it speaks volumes about the money China is pumping into its rail network – RMB801 billion (US$117 billion) last year alone, with an equally generous budget for 2018.

Train travel in China – even in sleeper class on regular overnight trains – has been turned into a highly palatable experience and is quite possibly the country’s best-kept secret.

China high-speed rail map

Leading the way

Then again, in 21st-century China, fast journeys on plush trains are nothing to write home about.

China has held the record for the fastest commercial electric train in the world since 2004, with the Shanghai Maglev (short for “magnetic levitation”) able to run at a top speed of 431km/h, surpassing Japan which famously pioneered the world’s first bullet train – the Shinkansen – in October 1964 for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

The new “wheels-on” high-speed rail network in China offers some of the fastest high-speed trains in the world, typically operating at around 300km/h. It is also the longest HSR network in the world, measuring 25,000km at the end of 2017, and accounting for an incredible 66 per cent of total high-speed rail track globally. According to the China Daily, this network transported around 1.7 billion people in 2017 – almost half of the world’s quota for HSR passengers.

What is perhaps most impressive, however, is the sheer speed of its transformation.

“China’s rise to become a high-speed rail power has occurred just in the last decade or so; the speed of development has been phenomenal,” says Dr Gerald Chan, an expert on Chinese international relations and author of Understanding China’s New Diplomacy: Silk Roads and Bullet Trains.

It’s true that China’s first high-speed rail service (capable of running at more than 300km/h) wasn’t built until 2008 and, like Japan, can be traced back to Olympic grandstanding, with the first service from the newly Bird Nested-capital to Tianjin opening a week before the Beijing Olympic Games. In 2012, I took that line into the capital, impressed as an LED ticker at the end of the carriage constantly relayed the train’s current speed to passengers, lest they forget its marvellous momentum. 

Since then, things have gone into overdrive. Many provincial capitals can now be reached from Beijing within eight hours, and that’s set to improve. According to the latest Five-Year Plan, by 2020 China’s rail network will have 30,000km of HSR track, (and 150,000km of total rail) covering 80 per cent of the major cities.

This will be achieved via an “upgrade of the so-called ‘4 horizontal 4 vertical’ network, covering the whole country, to an ‘8 horizontal 8 vertical’ network,”
explains Chan.

The plan proposes dividing China into a grid of railway lines, with eight trunk routes running east to west and another eight north to south. Among the eight verticals are two new lines connecting Beijing to Hong Kong and Kunming, while the eight running horizontally include a Shanghai to Chengdu route, and Xiamen to Chongqing line.

Future ambitions are even more sci-fi: a new project sees China and Japan collaborating to create an “albatross-inspired” train dubbed the Aero Train, which is predicted to have a top speed of 500km/h. Additionally, at the end of 2017 Chinese researchers announced their plans to develop a Hyperloop – as envisioned by Elon Musk in 2013 – that would be able to travel at 1,000km/h (three times the speed of sound), with research and testing currently under way in Guizhou.

Premium class carriage on board a high-speed train in China

Track record

How and why China has gone “From Laggard to Superpower” has been the central subject of a number of academic papers by Dr Chan – who is also the head of politics and international relations at the University of Auckland.

First and foremost, developing infrastructure to facilitate the country’s rapidly growing second- and third-tier cities, and ferry a burgeoning middle class, is seen as vital to continue fostering business connections and economic growth, particularly in revitalising the country’s poorer regions and provinces.

Closely related is the much-hyped “One Belt One Road” initiative, which has seen China pumping huge resources into improving infrastructure links with countries from Asia to Africa, to revive the old Silk Road and birth new trade routes. The aforementioned Lanzhou to Urumqi line is a perfect example: not only has this line connected a rural region of China’s vast land mass, but it has also helped to open a strategic gateway into neighbouring Kazakhstan and Central Asia – a major target of the One Belt One Road plan.

The phenomenal transformation has been made possible thanks to a combination of cheap resources (of both materials and labour) enhanced by mass scale economising – according to the World Bank, it costs China US$17-21 million per km of track, whereas in Europe that expense rises to US$25-39 million. Political will and the benefits of absorbing established foreign technologies and huge investment have also contributed to this success story.

Air delays

Of course, China’s aviation industry has also been growing rapidly, with new carriers, airports, aircraft and passenger numbers soaring. However, air travel is notoriously plagued by delays.

In surveys by the likes of OAG and Flightstats, China’s major hubs regularly come up trumps for tardiness. In the 2018 OAG Punctuality League, the on-time performance results of Beijing (63.5 per cent), Shenzhen (59.8 per cent) and Guangzhou (64.8 per cent) are indicative of the country-wide problem, particularly when compared to the world’s busiest airport, Chicago O’Hare, which scored a much more respectable 79.85 per cent. It’s fair to say most flyers in China are accustomed to automatically adding at least 30 minutes to the scheduled arrival time, while delays of up to 10 hours or total cancellations are far from unheard of.

A large part of the problem, according to industry experts, is that the military controls the majority of China’s airspace, with commercial aviation taking a back seat to the demands of military exercises. Increasingly congested airports, erratic weather patterns and stringent air traffic control safety regulations slowing down runway operations have also been cited as contributing factors.

For any traveller, delays are inconvenient, but for business travellers in particular, a delayed or cancelled flight could (and frequently does) result in missing a vital meeting, ruining onward travel plans, or having visas expiring – all of which can have severely disruptive consequences.

So while the two-and-a-bit hour flight from Beijing to Shanghai may sound preferable to a 4.5-hour journey by rail, when you factor in the very real chance of flight delays, it suddenly starts to look more appealing.

As Business Traveller forum contributor AlanOrton1 said in response to another member enquiring about the best domestic carrier from Hangzhou to Beijing: “I’d strongly suggest considering the high-speed train for this journey. While it might take five to six hours… I suspect it won’t be much longer in total travel time than time spent in the airport, on the plane, etc. Possibly quicker given the potential for [air-traffic control] delays.”

China high-speed rail

Practical matters

Unlike an internal flight, however, it’s inadvisable to book a journey via Chinese rail at the last minute: tickets on popular routes sell out way in advance. Tickets usually become available 60 to 30 days before departure, and can be booked online through travel agency Ctrip, which has a comprehensive English language site. The tickets can be delivered to a hotel – or any address in China – or picked up from the station (though language barriers can prove tricky in this scenario). Arrive there an hour before departure, to allow for queues and security checks entering the train station, as China becomes more sensitive to terrorist threats. You’ll need your passport to collect and book any tickets.

Most high-speed trains (those that begin with the letter G or D) have first and second class seats, both of which are air-conditioned and comfortable. On some lines, there is also business class, which boasts leather chairs and LED TV screens, and is decked out more like a plane cabin. Prices vary between lines, but travelling from Beijing to Shanghai on the G5, for example, will cost US$86 in second class, US$147 in first class and US$275 in VIP, and will get you to the Paris of the Orient in 4 hours and 40 minutes. Flying that route, by comparison, costs about US$200 with China Eastern and takes two hours and 20 minutes… on paper.

Normal trains are coded Z, T, K, L, Y or S, and are usually cheaper, have squat toilets and ticket classes ranging from standing room (only issued when all other tickets have sold out; passengers literally have to stand in the aisles) and hard seat tickets (those with no cushioning and very vertical backs) to the deluxe sleeper cabin for just two people.

Currently, much of China’s spider web of railroads is little travelled by foreigners, but perhaps they are missing a trick. On a trip recently across southern China to Guilin, as I sat in VIP class, being served complimentary drinks and snacks while the train snaked through Guangxi’s lush landscapes of jade green mountains and rice paddies, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would choose to fly.

Louise Cowell

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