Traveling long distances in China can be frustrating. Chinese airlines now run more domestic routes but service remains spotty. Inexplicable delays and seemingly random cancelations are common. Traveling by rail can be a more reliable alternative.
China’s railways have already gone up a notch in sophistication. Before the Spring Festival this year, new high-speed trains were introduced on the lines connecting Shanghai to Nanjing and Hangzhou. These “China Railway High-speed”, or CRH, trains also service the Shenzhen and Guangzhou route.
The trains are made locally but are based on Japanese bullet train technology. They have a top speed of 250 kilometers per hour, but will be restricted to 160kph until track upgrades are completed in mid-April. Construction starts on a 1,300km high-speed rail link between Shanghai and Beijing at the end of the year.
Travelers already think trains are faster than planes. Elijah Kislevitz, a sales director at a sporting equipment distributor in China and Hong Kong, often takes the 12-hour overnight train between Shanghai and Beijing.
“Trains are always extremely on time,” he said. “[With air travel], even a short flight can take up half a day.”
Another train traveler, Du Juan, a media professional based in Beijing, shares Kislevitz’s assessment. “The Luoyang-Beijing train used to take at least 15 hours, but now you can do it in under 10. As well as getting faster, the trains themselves are much more comfortable,” she said.
A number of projects underway promise to make train travel in China’s north more attractive. In 2010, the 115km journey between Beijing and Tianjin could take just 30 minutes. There is also talk of a 950km line between Dalian and Harbin with trains specially designed to operate in the extreme cold.
More radical developments are scheduled for the future. By 2010, China expects to be testing its maglev trains on longer routes. The country’s only existing maglev route is very short, connecting Pudong Airport to a metro station. These ultra modern trains will be capable of travelling at 500kph on custom-built test lines. Commuting by maglev is still a long way off, but China may well become home to the world’s fastest trains.