Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak not once, but twice at the Chinese High Speed Railway Travel Cooperation Conference, which was held at the Beijing Railways Tower, not far from the Beijing West Railway Station.
In the first event, I was part of a panel on the topic of high-speed rail in Taiwan. I actually visited the island and took five trips on that HSR system. I commented on how the system in Taiwan connects with the city metro systems in each major urban area, such as Taipei and Kaohsiung, even if the stations were somewhat further away from the heart of the cities.
For the second event, I had my own ten minutes onstage, where I introduced audiences to how railways were run in China, compared them to the situations in Europe (especially Switzerland), and floated ideas for how to make Chinese railways more international. I also had my wishes for Chinese HSR. ▶
I was invited on 03 March 2012 to a meeting I didn’t think I would actually end up going to, since it was probably “too” well-populated with distinguished academics and specialists. However, the independent Chinese website that ran the event (Du Jia Wang in Chinese, meaning Independent Views Web) told me that I was invited since I was considered a “major voice” on Sina Weibo (a kind of Twitter for China) on the topic of high speed rail in China.
Here are some of the views I made at the conference, which featured key strategists, intellectuals, and experts:
- The geographical characteristics of China means it needs HSR. Of its provincial capitals, almost all have a population of at least a million, with some having even more.
- High speed rail remains profitable. Profits, however small, are already being made on several lines, including the Shanghai-Nanjing Intercity HSR, and increased passenger numbers are being recorded on high speed lines from Beijing to Tianjin and Shanghai, with even stronger growth predicted.
- China has developed to the stage where it needs HSR. China has started from accelerated railways to the Maglev, and now runs HSR trains at around 300 km/h. It has done this gradually, as people have been better off.
- Deliberately slowing trains and downgrading speed standards on new trunk lines is a bad idea. This will mean wasted money, very little expenses saved, and a cut in efficiency. It is recommended that only slower lines are built first so to avoid downgraded lines being built.
- HSR is key to China and its general strategy. It is a green, fast, and sensible choice for China in the wider transport system. ▶
The fact that I arrived back in Beijing in late August 2000 to a China where the fastest trains were just 160 km/h (for Guangzhou, up to 200 km/h) and nationwide ticketing was not available, to the fact that the fastest Chinese trains run, as of this post, at speeds just over 350 km/h, is just purely amazing. I travelled on a 350 km/h G train sitting the wrong way, and didn’t barf: it’s a sign at just how stable the Chinese HSR network is.
But the whole network is just about a few years old. It’s still in a bit of a public beta, and it can crash — as the Wenzhou crash showed us — and when that happened it was pretty tragic. Nearly 50 lives lost, and brutal manhandling by the railway authorities, who preferred to bury people alive than to save any lives. It’s a system so paralysed by bad press, and so demented at the wrong time, that despatch ordered drivers to “go invisible” and cared less about faster trains rear-ending “invisible” trains. ▶
Right now I’m in Tianjin, and the train that leaves at 15:10 will whisk me back to the Jing. That’ll bring my train mileage up to 13,168.33 km, but most importantly, that would have been the 100th time I would have travelled by train this year alone.
Must be amazing. I have to say: it’s not like this hasn’t happened before… that was ten years ago in Switzerland. But for this year alone, these are some amazing figures.
More to come once I’m back in Beijing. ▶
The Swiss knew that there was enough Swissness when I applied for Swiss nationality (well… maybe, maybe not, I’m just sayin’ to get Bern’s attention, heh…) because I “bought” an essential part of Swissness in the form of a two-year Generalabonnement (GA) on the Swiss Federal Railways. The GA basically makes you about 4,000 Swiss francs poorer per year, and in exchange for that, you’re spiritually free on the rails. (Nope, you still can’t do balancing tricks on the rails themselves — that would cost you your life — but what it means is that you can hop onto a train at any time without the need or hassle to buy a ticket — and you get the best thing on the rails: 1st class.)
Funny though, though: at the naturalization “thing” I was never asked if I was a rail nut. I’m not sure if I would have had the nationality any sooner did Bern catch wind of the fact that I’m on my way to finishing 10,000 km of rail travel for just 2010. And that’s in Far Far Away China, where any “good” rail systems are far from being a full-scale network. The thing about trains and Switzerland is that people swear by it (although they swear at it if it’s late by 5 minutes, which accounts for a scant 5% of all trains).
The Swiss are total train nuts. The average Swiss travels at least a couple thousand kilometers on the rails, and that’s if that Swiss citizen isn’t called David Feng. ▶
Most intercity trains from the Beijing South Railway Station take you only as far as central Tianjin. There’s still around probably 40 km or so of distance between the heart of Tianjin and its more coastal side in Tanggu.
I recently completed a trip to Tanggu, first by taking a train to Tianjin, then via taxi to Zhongshanmen. And where is that, exactly? It’s the current city terminus of Binhai Mass Transit Line 9, which connects central Tianjin at Zhongshanmen to the Tanggu terminus by Donghai Road.
The light rail was pretty fast, although the announcements were terribly annoying.
I didn’t go as far as Donghai Road; instead I got off at Tanggu station, which wasn’t too far away from the easternmost end of the line. ▶