■ 13:18 (UTC+08:00), 13 DEC 2015 | CHN TRAIN C2046, WUQING ENROUTE TO BEIJING
10:40 (Beijing time), Friday, 11 December 2015. Chinese immigration authorities stamp me in — getting me back home. Yep, the Jing is home: how can the place you were born to not conceivably be home?
10:28, Sunday, 13 December 2015. Train G121 departs from Platform 16, Beijingnan Railway Station. Within 48 hours of touching down back in Beijing, I’m on the rails.
I have committed myself to the best of the Chinese rails because I’m sold they deserve it. (They didn’t “buy” this for even a ha’penny.) A system that started out life as the fastest, most efficient intercity service and is now home to over half the world’s HSR rails (making it by far the largest network in any country on the planet) had its darkest moments in the weeks and months following the fatal 23 July 2011 crash in Wenzhou, southeastern China. All it took for me to nearly abandon it for good was one utterly irresponsible Wang Yongping, then railways PR spokesperson, who was being blatantly crass and rude to media and the general public.
Within months, though, I had started on a correction course, and by early 2012, emerged as one of the most vocal and active supporters for HSR. This nearly got me into hot water in early 2013, when anti-HSR people ganged up and tried to hush me by force. This did not work: instead, I replied with more action and commitments for Chinese HSR, launching Everyday Rail English, which made me even more well-known in the Chinese rail world.
In mid-2014, Chinese railways started making some odd changes to some of their operations — including introducing more complex e-ticketing procedures. A generally semi-xenophobic, self-arrogant attitude on the side of Beijing put not just me off, but also got a lot of other expats relocating out from Beijing.
By mid-2015, however, it appeared that Beijing was back on its feet. From late July 2015, it seemed to have become a magnet for all the great events to come: the 2022 Winter Olympics, the 2022 Asian Games, the G20 summit for 2016, and a whole load of other events, major and minor, significant or otherwise.
By late 2015, the Chinese HSR system had emerged as the world’s best such system, with it being much more developed, services much improved (also in terms of frequency), and with better trains.
Having been immersed so deeply inside the rail system (but as an “outside individual” and at that, a neutral, independent observer), you do eventually form a few bonds with those inside. I exchanged a few views with rail crew onboard Train G121 on the way to Tianjinnan Railway Station. We agreed we did have very good hardware, making it an even better system once software improvements (such as service) were complete. I also briefed them a bit about how trains worked in the UK — but really, once you have the world’s best trainsets, it’s hard to look at the UK the way you did, although the default ticket holder National Rail gave you was very useful (you held three tickets, or two tickets and an ID card, in one — personal ticketing rules require ID for all rail tickets in China). The member of staff was also quite interested in seeing how a few “UK + rail” elements also appeared in real life, including a ticket / ID cover I had bearing the Tube map! (Sadly, we’ll have to cross out Holland Park soon, as it’ll be shut for 8 months whilst they redo the lifts.)
They then got me lunch (which I was entitled to as a paying Business Class passenger) — and I finished that within 8 minutes, almost beating the Chinese national railway ticketing staff record of five. (I did not make a subsequent loo rush!) I left the train at Tianjinnan station on Platform 3, having just met a rail friend whom I haven’t seen for the best part of 16 months. It’s great to be with people that run the world’s most efficient and advanced HSR system. And I’ll really be looking forward to all subsequent rail trips, including an upcoming one to Harbin, and further ones to Ji’nan, Nanjing, and Shanghai. ■ ■ ■