By bullet train in the People’s Republic

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, January 28, 2010

I don’t hold myself out as an expert on China or of Chinese railways. But finding myself in Beijing this week, what better to do than start my learning curve by experiencing that nation’s burgeoning railroad system? So I spent a day between the Chinese capital and Shenyang, 437 miles to the northeast and itself one of China’s 10 largest cities.
 
As you may know, the Chinese do nothing by half measure. China is well on its way to becoming the high speed rail capital of the world. How big a network? Think 12,000 high speed route miles, built on a budget of $300 billion.
 
The Beijing-Shenyang corridor is not at all unlike the Boston-Washington Northeast Corridor in the U.S. Both routes are of similar length and are dedicated almost entirely to passenger trains. Speed limits are remarkably alike, too, in the range of 125 to 150 mph on both routes (although the Beijing-Shenyang line has far more 150-mph track than Amtrak’s NEC).
 
Now, on to my impressions:
 
Equipment. China’s bullet trains are electric eight-car consists, with control cabs on each end. Both of my trains were two such sets coupled together, for 16 cars. Each set included one first-class car (52 seats, configured two and two), six second-class cars (93 seats, three-two), and one café-second class car (40 seats, three-two).
 
I couldn’t help comparing my trains to Amtrak’s Acela. I surmised that my trains employed first-generation bullet-train equipment. Their first-class cars are comparable to Acela’s business class. And second class is just a cut above a U.S. commuter train, frankly.
 
Ride quality. Here, there is no comparison. I could have set a quarter on edge on the floor during my Beijing-Shenyang travels and it would have still been standing up at the end of the line. On the Acela, you take your life in your hands walking back to your seat from the snack bar as you experience Lurch City. Amtrak’s track engineers should take a busman’s holiday in China.
 
Atmospherics. Well, I wasn’t impressed that a woman came through the trains several times with a wet mop, cleaning the floor. And the food looked none too appetizing to me (or to my fellow travelers, inasmuch as nobody seemed to patronize the snack counters or the carts that came through every so often). While knowledge of English in common in commercial areas of Beijing, it’s a different world on the trains. But people were unfailingly polite to me.
 
Stations. Nothing fancy, in either Beijing or Shenyang.But by gosh, they are efficient, designed to handle the multitudes. In Beijing, for instance, you buy tickets outside, so as not to take up valuable space inside, I guess. Arriving and departing passengers never set eyes on each other. Arriving in Shenyang, for instance, you go to an underground walkway and emerge in a small headhouse that leads directly out of doors. Departing, you enter a building a block away, take an escalator above the tracks, and go trackside from waiting rooms via staircases leading back down (see the photo, above). It’s a pretty nifty way to handle great numbers of people.
 
What you see. Beijing has become one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, a first-class destination. But in the countryside as seen from bullet trains D25 to Shenyang and D2 back to Beijing, it’s still 1960. This isn’t Kansas, in other words. First of all, forget farmhouses; there are none. The communities where farm workers live (collectives is the former term), glimpsed as we sped past, look gray, lifeless, devoid of any discernible commercial activity and of any new construction in recent decades, for that matter. How can you keep ’em down on the farm once they’ve seen Beijing? Say what you will about small-town American life, it’s at least a life.
 
Tomorrow, it’s off to Shanghai, a 914-mile, 10-hour, 50-minute trip from Beijing. I’ll find out when I get to Beijing South Station whether the piece of paper I bought is a first-class or second-class ticket; I devoutly hope the former. Of course, I’ll share the experience with you. — Fred W. Frailey

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