Saturday, 11 June 2011

All aboard! for China's newest railway

The Ministry of Railways has announced that it will be revealing next week the ticket prices for the new Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway. 
It’s been just over three years (three years!!) since the Chinese started work on the 819-mile railway, and they managed, in fact, to finish laying the track last November. The original plan had been for the railway to be a Maglev, similar to the literally terrifyingly fast train that now links Shanghai Pudong Airport to the city in just eight minutes (a journey that used to take well over an hour by bus). The impracticality of such an enormously long Maglev (Shanghai’s, at 19 miles, is currently the longest in service anywhere) made the Chinese eventually choose traditional steel rails, otherwise we’d be looking at a journey time of under four hours. As it is, the new trains will still be running at up to 186mph, making Beijing less than a five-hour trip from Shanghai, compared to at least twice that at present.
The carriages, for any train nerds out there, are a variant of the CRH380 “Harmony” class already in service in China. In recent tests they’ve reached almost 303mph, and they’re two full Earth feet wider than Virgin’s fancy-pants Pendolino trains (the ones that crawl along the west-coast line because someone’s forever stealing the copper signal-cabling outside Rugby. Anybody trying to steal the cabling from the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway will of course be summarily shot). 
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve travelled by rail between “The Big BJ” (having written my new nickname for Beijing down, I can see why it hasn’t caught on) and Shangers. Each time, because of high demand for tickets on the 10-hour service, it’s been an overnighter, and occasionally it’s taken the best part of two days - morning on day one to the evening of day two. The new railway will make it feasible to get from city to city and back within a day for a business meeting, whereas at the moment it can take hours just to get from Beijing Capital Airport through the hellish traffic of however many damn ring roads the place now has. 
The Beijing terminal, the new Beijing South Station, is reputedly the biggest railway station in Asia. When I first used it in 1991 it was a tiny, brick-built old Communist edifice way out past Yongdingmen, surrounded by unmetalled roads plied by donkey carts. It now makes Heathrow look ancient. Actually, the tiny, brick-built old Communist edifice made Heathrow look ancient, too, come to think of it.
The Chinese are managing to modernise their country at such a dizzying speed it’s hard to know whether to be impressed or scared. Ten out of the top thirteen longest bridges in the world are in China. The very longest, part in fact of the new Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, is said to be so long I fear I’ve translated something wrong: the raised section of this Dan-Kun Ultra-Long Bridge between Danyang and Kunshan in Jiangsu province is over 100 miles long. Now that’s mental.

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