Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chinese Rail Links Growing Fast to Going Fast

Work and family travel have kept me on the road for much of the past few weeks, including a couple of trips on Amtrak's decade-old high-speed Acela line. I actually began composing this posting aboard an Acela, zipping from Philadelphia to Washington earlier today, but the trip was too quick for me to finish.

The truth is Acela's "high speed" status is marginal in most cases. Sure, it saved me a critical half hour getting from a meeting in downtown Boston to an event in downtown New York the week before last. But while Acela can achieve speeds of 150 miles per hour, it only averages about half that on the busy tracks of the northeast corridor. In most cases, that means Acela's time savings over Amtrak's traditional train service do not exceed the significant cost difference.

But would a really speedy Acela change that equation?

A new rail line operated by the Guangzhou Railway Group in China suggests what a difference even higher-speed trains could make for travelers in the United States someday.

The "Harmony express" began operating between the cities of Wuhan in and Guangzhou late last year, turning what was an 11-hour journey on older trains into a three-hour trip between the two provincial capitals. (The image above -- from Xinhua, China's state-run news agency -- shows a train operator's view accelerating out of Wuhan.)

China's Harmony trains race along at 210 miles per hour. That's about 30 miles per hour faster than Japan's Shinkansens and France's TGV.

A Harmony-fast train could cover the distance from Boston to New York in less than an hour -- compared to the three-and-a-half it took me on Acela.

China's investment in that kind of convenience and rail speed is significant: $17 billion on the Wuhan-Guangzhou line alone. That's more than twice the $8 billion in stimulus money that Congress approved in 2009 as a initial five-year investment in faster train service for the entire United States.

And as NPR's Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn pointed out in a Weekend Edition Sunday story back in January, the Wuhan-Guangzhou route is far from the end of the line: "China plans to spend $300 billion in the next decade to build the world's most extensive and advanced high-speed rail network."

Anthony's report made me seriously jealous. A sometimes frustrating thing about being an editor is spending most of your time at your desk and in meetings while your coworkers go out and do things like ride high-speed trains across China. The closest I could get was e-mailing him about the experience afterward.

Anthony told me the new rail service was comparable to other high-speed trains he's traveled on in Europe and Asia:

"I've been on France's TGV and Japan's 'bullet trains,' and the new Chinese train compared very favorably. In fact so much so that I was almost nostalgic for the old-style 'hard sleeper berths,' the somewhat claustrophobic, lumbering trains that I took many a ride on here in the '80s or '90s. It's a great way to meet folks and learn about China -- provided that you're not in a hurry."

Whether Chinese passengers will be willing to pay higher fares for the convenience of the new rail service was very much an open question, Anthony told me:

"The meat of this debate is whether China's huge investment will pay off. Beijing's attitude is 'build it and they will come.' With rail, I think that is basically a good bet, but. . . it will take time for incomes to rise to the point where large numbers of people are willing to spend money to save time. China's middle class is robust in absolute numbers (200 million?) but anemic in proportion to the whole country."

A contrast to U.S. plans for high-speed rail that Anthony noted was the speed with which the Chinese line was built:

"One thing that I didn't get to mention in the piece is that the new line goes through some very mountainous territory on the border between Hunan and Guangdong provinces, and so a lot of the line runs over bridges and through tunnels. It's quite something that they managed to complete the whole thing in just four years. During China's first experiment with railroads at the end of the last imperial dynasty, they tried to build a railway along the same route and it took them about 40 years."

One traveler advisory for anyone planning to book a trip: The stations for China's new trains are not especially convenient -- about an hour's drive from the downtowns on either end of the Harmony's route, as a Financial Times report noted.

Anthony's experience certainly echoed the FT on that detail:

"I almost didn't get to my train in time. The Wuhan station was way out in the suburbs, and the traffic snarled so bad on the way there that I had to hop out of my cab and leg it for about a mile to get past the jam and get in another cab. I thought urban rail was supposed to take people form one city center to another. One passenger pointed out to me, though, that the urban sprawl would soon consume that suburb, and it would soon just be another urban district."

In China, it seems, developing high-speed rail is seen as a fast-track for other kinds of development.

Here's Anthony's radio report about his trip from January:

1 comment:

Joe Warminsky said...

This post is more like, "Assignment: Missed Opportunities." But it's not your fault.