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 to connect northeast China with Shanghai.
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. ▶
It’s not a David Feng talk if it’s not about trains. With the population of just over two Londons moving from the countryside to the city every year across China, something will have to carry them. And whilst the country may have pretty much the largest national motorway network on the planet, it’s also home to over two-thirds of the world’s HSR tracks.
This already-massive network — at 19,000 km (11,806 miles) — is expected to grow even more by 2020, with figures by then to hit 30,000 km (18,641 miles) for the entire nationwide HSR network. With most trunk lines running at no less than 300 km/h (186 mph), this is going to be one of the most efficient ways to get across the country.
My talk on 12 April 2016 at the London Book Fair introduced urbanisation in China and its effects, with a focus on infrastructure. ▶
Just yesterday, I had left the Starbucks not far from central Oxford and was headed to the town hall, apparently for “lunch”. Tracy got me into a room in the town hall, which was to be used in the afternoon for an event we would take part in. She asked me to come to the lectern for a photo opp. (You like doing that and giving speeches all the time!, she said, so on I went to “the set”. There was also virtually no-one else there, and it would be at least a full hour until the event would be underway, so we had plenty of time.)
I thought about using this pic (look at this great shot, my wife said to me) so to tell you all about a key shift in my life as I prepare for what’s next my end, career-wise. Now Tracy and I had just finished a few weeks where we consulted one other for solid plans. I myself am putting behind unpredictable times and have a fresh new vision, but also am true to that age-old adage — If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I have to say she is far more optimistic than I dared imagine — and both of us were also realistic. ▶
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. 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. ▶
At precisely 18:57:39 on 14 January 2016, a Daxing Line train, extraordinarily crowded until Xihongmen (where they’ve a ginormous IKEA with the obligatory Costa next to it), emptied itself of all riders, yours truly included, at the Tian’gongyuan terminus. That was it. I had completed all of the Beijing Subway opened to the public. And Beijing thus became the third city in the whole wide world (after Chengdu in 2013, and London in 2015) that I had travelled on its mass transit system across all lines in revenue service.
I actually was able to pull off this stunt earlier — in April 2008 — so strictly speaking, it would have been the first such system around the planet. But then the network quintupled itself, adding since that record Lines 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, and 15, as well as the Airport Express, and Changping, Daxing, Fangshan, and Yizhuang Lines.
The new station I have absolutely come to yell for (not yell at) is Dawanglu. The city’s south HSR hub, Beijingnan (Beijing South) Railway Station, once was remotely inaccessible for CBD people — you in essence had to cram yourself onto a Line 1 train (stuffy it was!), and make yourself through the spaghetti interchange that was Xidan onto Line 4. Now, it really is a no-brainer… I can imagine nothing better than leaving the CBD onto a direct connection to the HSR hub at Beijing South, all without having to change trains halfway through. ▶
Photo credit: Liang Bo
That’s me doing Rail English again for China. Just a few days back, I was appointed Railway English Consultant for Ji’nanxi (Ji’nan West) and its subordinate stations, which include stations from Taian to Zaozhuang. Some time earlier, I also did much the same at Xuzhoudong (Xuzhou East) station, which basically meant that if you’re travelling between these stations, you should see serious improvements in Rail English.
As of late there’s one other very welcoming development: the Beijing-Shanghai HSR has been showered by the central government in China, giving it top honours in a national science and technology progress awards ceremony.
It is no secret this is now one of China’s busiest HSR routes. Trains G1 through to G22, which generally run the 1,318 km (824 mi) stretch in less than 5 hours’ time, are amongst the most popular trains in the nation, both amongst locals and expats, as well as visitors from abroad. With the line as popular and as award-winning as it is, the next big goal my end would be to make it China’s first 100% bilingual line. ▶
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 they deserve it. 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. ▶
If teachers around the People’s Republic are writing to their heads, requesting time off to explore the world, they could easily do it in more style. There’s also a thing about sticking a UnionPay sticker in a shop in Luzern, and actually trying to understand the culture of the cardholder. All of this leaves incredibly little room left for the wrong carriages on the wrong tracks — be that one that involves the Chinese, Americans, or Swiss. ▶
I’ve seen this in signs on anything train-themed, both in Asia and now in the UK as well. The Swiss Federal Railways’s ICN trainset, Switzerland’s own high-speed set of locomotive wheels, is a favourite for anyone train-related the world over — and why am I not surprised? It’s a work of art.
However, there are still bits and bobs of the ICN that not everyone has come to adore. The food is perfect, but what annoys me a bit is the huge noise you hear in the compartments just by the dining room. Power gets cut at times, and the noise is loud enough to make you un-productive. ▶
You have to love London’s Tube station names. For a split second, I thought the dashes made the place name look more like one you’d find in France — than in the UK.
But settled-on-the-hill we indeed are, after finding a nice flat which is in one of the best parts of Harrow — a mere two bus stops away from the heart of central Harrow (the high street with the pedestrianised zone, wifi cafés no less!) and just about the same distance from two key transit hubs — Harrow-on-the-Hill and Harrow & Wealdstone stations. Transit options are absolutely fabulous: at the Hill station, Chiltern Railways runs every 30 minutes, making a 12-minute sprint to London Marylebone (not too far away from either the Swiss embassy or parts nearby), or you can get the Metropolitan line to other stations, including the key stations of London Euston, King’s Cross, and St Pancras. There is also the fantastically designed Finchley Road interchange available for all Metropolitan line trains going into central London, so you can just hop across the platform to a Jubilee line train for very easy access to central London (Westminster, Waterloo, and even Canary Wharf on the same line!).
The usual suspects are also around the corner: we are being spoilt by two Costas and a Starbucks (and the best thing that can happen — did: there is a Costa just by the Harrow-on-the-Hill station (north entrance), which I take as a “pay lounge with wifi access”. Like any good establishment, you collect enough points so that you’ll get a free cuppa something down the line. The Starbucks, in the meantime, offers you this super-cool option to pay via your iPhone. Never mind Beijing’s CBD flagship store is ace: details matter, and I’d take “iPayment” as a personal fave over anything else — any day. ▶