■ 21:06 (UTC±00:00), 26 FEB 2016 | GBR BAKER STREET UNDERGROUND STATION, LONDON
I have been taking trains for pretty much as long as I can remember. I remember quite clearly I was onboard a train in northeastern Switzerland, in second class, along with other members of the Chinese communities, in either 1989 or 1990.
In school, I quit the school bus service and instead, got myself multiride tickets between home and school. This was dead easy to pull off: as long as you left home by 07:45 (07:40 if you wanted to be sure), and got to the nearby station before 07:56 (when your train was due), you made it. There was only one platform at the local station, and once you got to Zürich Stadelhofen station, as long as you got off from the right set of doors, you’d dash via the escalators, through to the other end of the station, then to the nearby Forchbahn station, where the final leg would be with the Forchbahn long-distance tram. The trip was easily doable, although if my incoming connection came late, I had to wait the best part of 15 minutes for a subsequent connection!
In high school, I got myself annual nationwide season tickets, known as the SBB GA travelcard (Generalabonnement). I wanted to spend some extra time on trains to get my homework perfected, so I was lucky enough to get a first class edition of the travel pass. This also meant I had weekends when I could travel onboard any train in Switzerland for as long as I wanted to. It also meant I had a front-row seat to Switzerland’s new ICN pendular train (when it came onto the rails on 28 May 2000) and the Coop shopping coach (a nice concept, unfortunately slightly flawed — as you had the train go at pretty high speeds, making the shopping more like tight-rope walking!).
When I returned to China in 2000, the whole national railway system there was completely different. You had virtually no freedom of travel: you were booked onto a specific seat on a designate train, and because I wasn’t up for this, I gave up trains in China for 8 full years. However, I was able to talk myself onto trying a train on 01 August 2008 — a Swiss day that had Chinese elements, for the world’s first-ever 350 km/h (217 mph) train service opened up on a day that was both Swiss National Day and military day in China.
The fact I was able to do 120 km (75 miles) in 30 minutes, thereby going from one city to the other, rendered me totally stunned. Since then, there has hardly been a month — or, now that I’m based in London, for the moment — a year I didn’t travel by China’s HSR trains. When the Wenzhou crash happened, I was close to deserting the system, however, because speed-slashing across the whole network meant lower efficiencies and potentially less safe trains. However, I returned to the rails for long-distance trips less than three months after the crash, and am now one of the nation’s most frequent train travellers.
I do trains both around the country and within cities. In Beijing, the city subway network has gotten so big (bigger than London’s system!) that I’ve basically dumped the car for intracity trips (and for intercity trips where a connecting city metro link is available). In London, I’ve been able to tackle roundabouts on right-hand drive cars (something I thought I’d never ever pull off), but I’m still Tubed and rail-ed as I find it’s much faster to do these.
Living in three of the world’s most “rail” countries is indeed quite unique. London, being the capital of the UK, is also this part of the world where railways were first invented. But then the Swiss made them better, and the Chinese made them faster. In all my travels, I’ve never really reached 100% rail nirvana — but I’ve a good impression what it’d be. It would be a system that was as dense and well-served as the Swiss system, with Swiss attention to detail and Chinese speed and efficiency (both countries run extremely efficient rail network services).
I still do have a car (I prefer manual transmission vehicles, for the simple fact I’m a control freak — a green control freak, since manuals suck up less gas as long as you shift in time), but I use these less and less increasingly. For most trips, it’ll be the train, whether inside the city, or around the country. I’m often extremely productive on these, and the scenery is always different at every moment. These are things you simply can’t duplicate when driving (nobody sane ever tried typing while driving — and don’t! It’s fatal!). And as long as they build up the network — both in China and Switzerland — I’ll be a happy, paying passenger. ■ ■ ■