China's busiest passenger route

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, February 1, 2010

Every night in Beijing, starting at 9:15 p.m., seven sleeping-car trains leave for Shanghai on five-minute headways. The same scene is enacted at the other end, 914 miles away. Riding one of these trains is a great experience, if you don’t mind sleeping with one to three strangers who don’t speak your language. More than that, I wanted to see what lies between these two great Chinese cities, so I took the first of two daylight bullet trains from Beijing: D29 — a 10-hour, 50-minute experience.
 
I am told the Jinghu Railway, as this route is called, is the busiest passenger train corridor in China. The cities that straddle it contain one-fourth of China’s 1.3 billion people. But if you haven’t ridden it by now, you probably never will. That’s because by 2012, the Jinghu High Speed Railway, following a similar route, will open, consigning the existing rail line to local service and freight trains.
 
At speeds of up to 210 mph, the Beijing-Shanghai trip will take but five hours, which is why those seven sleeping car trains in each direction are not long for this world. Ridership of an estimated 220,000 people a day is forecast, and you’ll see a train go by every five minutes during peak hours.
 
All well and good, but I couldn’t wait a year, much less two, which is why I showed up at Beijing South’s venerable station this morning before sunup, for D29’s 7:17 a.m. departure. I’m glad I did.
 
Today’s experience was quite a contrast to my round trip between Beijing and Chenyang (see "By Bullet Train in the Peoples Republic"). Old versus new, you could say. The Chenyang trip involved old stations, old bullet trains, and an impoverished rural landscape.
 
Beijing South Station, from which my train to Shanghai left, is as New China as the one in central Beijing is Old China — a handsome, sweeping structure of steel and glass that was probably completed just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And D29 turned out to be a second-generation, eight-car bullet train that I would compare favorably to Amtrak’s Acela. I liked everything about it except the food selection in the snack car. (That's a second-class coach in the second photo.)
 
Maybe it was just because the sun was out today, but the poverty that depressed me the day before in the farming communities between Beijing and Chenyang didn’t seem so oppressive from the window of D29.
 
The double-track route to Shanghai is at capacity, surely. But not from passenger trains. Every 20 or 30 minutes we’d meet an opposing passenger train. Every five minutes, a freight train whizzed by on the other track. I wish I could have watched the train dispatchers do their thing, because somehow they kept the railroad fluid. Passing tracks save the day; there’s one every 10 or so miles on each main track, and many held diesel- or electric-powered freights waiting to be overtaken.

Possibly because passenger and freight operations are so closely intertwined on this line, our train never got above about 105 mph.

I expected to see solid container trains, because most of what is offloaded on the U.S. west coast gets there from Shanghai. Instead, probably half the freight cars were in coal service, the rest being a mix of boxcars and tank cars. It beats me how those containers en route to the U.S. get to Shanghai.
 
All day long we criss-crossed and occasionally paralleled the new Jinghu High Speed Railway, in various stages of construction. Most of the new line is elevated on support beams spaced about 100 feet apart (see the bottom photo). From what I could see, an awful lot of work has to be done for this line to open in two years. But while Rome wasn’t built in a day, great, huge chunks of modern Beijing apparently were. If the Chinese can do that, they can complete the Jinghu High Speed Railway on schedule.
 
I’ll leave you with a thought: Wouldn’t it be neat to be awake, at about 2 in the morning, somewhere in the China countryside, as those 14 sleeping car trains passed each other at 100 mph? Nowhere else in the world could you see such a spectacle, while it lasts. — Fred W. Frailey

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