Track to the future
By Alan Simon and Wang Ru (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-12-19 08:02

We're often advised to enjoy the journey more than the goal. In that case, you'd better be quick if you want to savor the bullet train to Tianjin.

Passengers enjoy a quick, cheap and comfortable journey on the bullet train shuttling between Beijing and Tianjin. [China Daily]

The world's fastest inter-city train covers the 120 km in just 29 minutes, reaching a peak of 350 km/h. If you like to read a book or gaze at the passing countryside, this isn't for you.

If, on the other hand, you want to be whisked from A to B quickly, cheaply and comfortably, China's new trains are heaven-sent.

For some, it might seem predictable, even mundane. A booming country, money to burn, flexing its new economic muscle on the back of an acclaimed Olympic Games.

Not so 65-year-old Yuan Yishan. He appreciates the good times because he still remembers the bad. The accountant from Tianjin has been traveling to and from Beijing for about 45 years.

When we met, he had zipped up to Beijing South first thing, completed his work inside three hours and by lunchtime was waiting for his trip home to south Tianjin to prepare dinner for his grandson.

"Forty years ago, it was impossible to travel between the two cities in a day and the slow train made the short trip uncomfortable," he said, looking utterly contented.

"My first train to Beijing was in the early 1960s. It was a slow steam train and took about four and a half hours. We had to sit on hard wooden benches and my back was aching all over when I got off at the old Yongdingmen Station."

No wonder, then, that when Beijing South made its grand debut on the eve of the Olympics, he was an immediate fan. "It feels like flying on land!" he beamed. "One day I noticed the speed reached 320 km/h. Apart from the speed, the big soft chair and free mineral water made the journey comfortable and relaxed.

"Now there are trains to and from Beijing every 15 minutes and there are restaurants and coffee shops in the station hall. I really enjoy these trips." The second-class ticket for 59 yuan ($8.3) also went down well.

For Australian businessman Charles Brent, the bullet train marks an end to ghastly road trips.

"I used to drive back and forth," said the investment specialist, who paid an extra 10 yuan for a wee bit more space and comfort in the first-class carriage.

"It used to take three and a half hours and it was quite dangerous. Invariably I would see an accident, often a fatal one. It was so bad I wouldn't even consider doing it at night. Trucks would stop in the middle of the road and put you at risk of decapitating yourself if you drove into the back of them. Other drivers would stop to change wheels when you least expected it."

Brent believes this is just the start. "I reckon China's railway network will lead the world in design and efficiency, both for passengers and freight, within 15 years," he said.

"I have dramatically increased my use of trains in the last two years - they have become so much faster, safer and more pleasant than driving."

Price and speed were the motivation for Cai Meijuan, 34. Cai, a native of Qingdao, landed a sales job in Beijing in 2001 and ever since has been returning home twice a year to visit her parents.

She has recently had to make the trip several times and has switched to the new high-speed trains. "A one-way flight cost me 700 yuan ($100) and the new train is only 200 ($29)," she said.

"The new train to Qingdao takes about five hours, twice as quick as the old one. The flight time might be quicker but you have to arrive at the airport at least an hour before to check in and it takes an extra hour to get home from Qingdao Airport, so the train makes a lot of sense for me."

The only complaint Cai had was access to the rest of Beijing from the new train station. She is relishing the day the new subway lines are connected, slicing even more money and time off her journey.

Australian factory owner Bill McGuinness planned to spend as much of his three-week business trip to China on the new trains. "I'd use them every day of the week," he said as he prepared to start his four-hour 30-minute journey to Jinan. "It's the best way to see the country."


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