■ 18:58 (UTC+08:00), 22 SEP 2016 | CHN STARBUCKS, BEIJING CBD
Sometimes, it’s the little things that make China’s HSR great.
Like, say, the 261 km long Tianjin-Qinhuangdao HSR. At just 163 miles, this is hardly a major trunk line in one of the world’s largest countries, but it links the high speed lines between Beijing and northeastern China via Tianjin, Qinhuangdao, and the coast. This new line has allowed “full” HSR services (G trains) to connect northeast China with Shanghai.
Or the Baoding-Tianjin express railway; again, at 158 km, this rail line, not even a hundred miles in length, would seem unimpressive, but it allows long-distance HSR services to skip Beijing altogether, thus adding new services via Tianjin, this time connecting more of central China to the northeast.
The new Zhengzhou-Xuzhou HSR isn’t massive, either, at “only” 362 km. Yet, for its mere 225 miles or so, this new line, good for speeds upwards of 350 km/h (217 mph), formed a crucial link — it was the first rail line good for such high speeds to connect between two of China’s most vital north-south HSR routes — the Beijing-Hong Kong and Beijing-Shanghai HSR routes. It also meant that my long-awaited connection from Xi’an (where I’ve ancestral roots) to Shanghai is finally reality.
Most trains that run on this line “borrow” it to reach their final destination — so while “pure” Zhengzhou-Xuzhou trains are less the case, we’re going to be seeing more a la Shanghai-Xi’an, Wuhan-Xuzhou, and Shijiazhuang-Nanjing trains. A train that runs nonstop here will be done with the stretch in probably less than 90 minutes, running at present-day speeds (300 km/h; 186 mph).
Coming 690 days after China opened up its first decent HSR line, this new link was also big for another reason — with this very HSR line, China’s HSR network just about broke the 20,000 km (12,500 mi) barrier in terms of total network length.
Preparing for the New Line — in Two Languages
To get ready for our arrival, as the Beijing Subway suggests we might say, we did this in more than one language. (Honest.)
Most of us would think Xuzhou would be the last place in the world to need a truly bilingual solution for passengers — but being Swiss, I was thinking way into the future. Just as I’m writing this, final approval is in essence reality for a new, 350 km/h (217 mph) line extension from Xuzhou to Lianyungang, on the coastline. Thus, by 2020, we’ll get a 350 km/h HSR line from Lianyungang via Xuzhou to Xi’an and Baoji, with connections (still by HSR at speeds above 200 km/h or 125 mph) to Lanzhou and Ürümqi. If we just build a few more hundred miles out to the border, then we’d have left China altogether. The long-distance “international-ness” of the new line made sense for Xuzhou to go bilingual.
Even more so, Xuzhou was in essence the midway point between Beijing and Shanghai on the world-famous Beijing-Shanghai HSR. This made Xuzhou all the more “world-ready”.
I’ve been on the rails for a long time. I’ve also heard how expats find getting around by train a little cumbersome — due to most announcements being done in Chinese (and the main e-ticketing website available in Chinese only). As a result, I’ve decided to help Xuzhou stations out with a fully bilingual printed brochure.
I came up with the first draft, then they redesigned it, checked everything was correct and up-to-date, and finally sent it to the printers. The whole thing had a very Swiss presence as well: Dalton Maag’s Aktiv Grotesk was used for the English text. (And yes, I was legit — and purchased the font!)
The final design was in bright orange — to celebrate the start of the new high-speed services. I did two clips for Shanghai Rail, both in English and in Chinese, and made sure riders were welcomed onboard the new train services in style — with all of the most important rail info on the new bilingual brochure. Indeed, with general ticketing, onboard, and even “just in case” info printed (including the convoluted ticket replacement guide), riders from both inside and outside the country would (hopefully) have the least issues.
Finally, we also updated the Xuzhou stations WeChat account, providing details of the new train services.
Huge Media Attention
The media’s mad after the trains, and this time, it showed — more than ever. But first, they needed a train to hop onboard. And so it just happened that our westbound train from Xuzhou to Zhengzhou would arrive after the first southbound service — thus letting me see the first service that went nationwide on the new rail line before we’d be on the move ourselves.
At just after 08:30 on 10 September 2016, I went to Platform 13 at Xuzhoudong (Xuzhou East) Railway Station, where the train rolled in, ontime as usual. (Sorry, Shinkansen. We’re just as precise as you are, most of the time!) Just as I was saying hello to a rail friend, I took note of the media swarm. Next thing I knew, two microphones pointed my way: one from NetEase livecasts, and the other from Chinese Central TV.
I did one-on-one interviews with both: one livecast with NetEase, where I told them I was happy they expanded the network with the new line (hey, travelling by train allows you to see so much more!), and the other was done with Central TV, with a reporter from the national People’s Railway Daily snapping me being Interviewed (yes!), then posting this online. When asked if I’d be a frequent rider, the answer was affirmative (and I seriously meant it — I’ve a full smorgasbord of journeys I’d like to take, most involving the new addition): the new line finally opened up Xi’an-Shanghai by 350 km/h rail, and I can fully see myself using this line a fair bit in future.
On Train G1802 headed to Zhengzhou, I had nary an hour to myself (and my wife Tracy) before the media spotted me again — this time there were an uncountable number of cameras and microphones (Tracy spotted at least 3). “I choose HSR in China as my first choice all the time. I love it now that they’re expanding the network,” I said, something that went straight on a report from the national Xinhua News Agency. This was absolutely true: I still remembered when we just had a minuscule 120 km (75 mi) network in 2008, when the only “decent” high-speed services ran between Beijing and Tianjin. In that time, we’re now home to 20,000 km (12,500 mi) of HSR.
The media was on me again as I shared with another rail friend my collection of Chinese and international train tickets. “Add me on WeChat. We’ll have to interview you when you get to the terminus.” A couple dozen minutes later, the train pulled into Zhengzhoudong (Zhengzhou East) station, on-time — as the Swiss would see it. I pulled out my ticket collection onstage and was wowed by a subsequent photo — of me being interviewed, and a picture of people taking a picture of me being interviewed!
We finally exited for some peace and quiet in Zhengzhou, while always admiring the sheer scale of this station, which impressed many when I sent pictures onto Twitter.
But the relative peace and quiet was not for long, it seemed: my Weibo crowd soon (number over 10,000!), soon got me aware that I got my own tweet on the official Weibo account of Chinese national railways, with my Chinese name 冯琰 written on it (and it was the pic of me being interviewed by NetEase).
I was a moving target. (Seriously, I don’t object to this. I love Chinese HSR because it’s such a great alternative to flying — minimal delays are just one of the many reasons I’m on rails, not wings… And nope, I don’t get paid one penny — in fact I still pay for just about all trips!)
Sights and Sounds of “Zhengxu”
The trip itself reminded me to my maiden full-length journey on the Beijing-Shanghai HSR in November 2011. At that time, Beijing was already in the early winter deep freeze, with most signs of green-ness gone. Once the train passed through the semi-mountainous stretch in central Shandong and onward into Anhui, however, green suddenly returned — I was in warmer climates — and to me, a northerner, this made quite a difference.
Green was also what I saw on this stretch of China’s HSR network. It, once again, was different from the early 2013 trip Tracy and I did between Beijing and Changsha, where the part in central China was through farmland with only isolated “patches” of woodland.
The new stations were impressive. The new standard for intermediate stations had platforms which covered only the platform area — not the whole station — but it was still of use (as in Switzerland, we had a few stations where not all of the platform was covered), as the covered part expanded to cover the entire length of the platform — which was designed for a 16-car mega-monster.
Shangqiu station was of particular note: this would be a future hub as it would host a future high-speed connection running further southeast as far as Hangzhou.
Of course, I’d be amiss if I forgot to introduce how we geared up for the train: we actually had kids dressed in traditional Chinese dressing to welcome the new train service on Platform 1!
(I actually have a better shot of these kids queuing to board, but being Swiss, it’s not nice to be “too invasive” of other people’s privacy!)
Prof* Feng Gets a Rail Gift…!
At the end of the day (yes, way late; it was already pretty much dark when we got to the station for the trip back to Beijing), Tracy and I went back on Train G506, hosted by Chief Conductor Gao Man. “We bought this ticket because we got to know you’d be the Chief Conductor. Your trains are always special in that people are taken special care of,” I said, after checking she ran that train that very day.
I hardly get any surprises onboard — usually it’s just a case of a nice hello, maybe a Coke or a cup of tea to get me working — then straight to the Business Class part of the train, where I power up my Mac, and get stuff done enroute. This trip wasn’t too different — although being a Biz Class passenger, we were entitled to a nice free meal in the evening.
Not long after the dinner, though, Gao Man came in with something special — a special gift, two flowers she had made herself. (Yes, it was artificial, but they do remain very special!)
It has to be for you, Prof* Feng — it’s Teacher’s Day today across China! She was right about that. And, in addition to teaching at universities, I also teach across the national rail network — telling members of staff how to say this, that, and all other things, in proper, non-Chinglish English.
Being appreciated always felt great. (The photo, too, was the other great. Oh and yes, by the way, Tracy’s a fan of All Them Filters!)
Finally, just upon arriving at the platform at Beijingxi (Beijing West) station, we met rail friends whom we knew since 2012 — just a year after the Wenzhou HSR crash. Some of these friends went to the airport to say goodbye to us in mid-2014, when we left for London — only to be overjoyed when we said we were headed back to Beijing this early.
Oh, and you do know I don’t do planes across much of China any more, no? Magic trains like these make airports and planes irrelevant (except for maybe SWISS International Air Lines…). ■ ■ ■
* The use of the term “professor” is to be seen in a US English context only, where my status since my PhD graduation has been the equivalent of Assistant Professor in the United States.