To me, 2011 has been (and still is) the Year of the Beijing South Railway Station. I say that because I left Beijing on a train for the first time on my end in my entire lifetime late on 01 August 2008 on a brand-spankin’-new Beijing-Tianjin intercity high speed railway train, which was my introduction to the real Chinese railway world. Far from being a second India (which was what I feared, due to the seemingly huge gap between Swiss and Chinese railways), the rail system in China have by far been one of the most enjoyable systems to ride on.
It’s also at that very same station that now-wife (then-fiance) Tracy left with me on a historic Train G1, the first-ever train on the new, state-of-the-art Beijing-Shanghai High Speed Railway (HSR). A surprise meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao was just one of the “delicacies”; other “tasty entrees” came with the lie-flat seats and the experience that you were part of history in the making.
Tragically, three short weeks onward, 40 dead riders in Wenzhou and the wave of slowdowns and delays in new HSR construction seem to have put Chinese high speed rail into some serious doubt. However, Chinese HSR is making a comeback — see, they’re already pouring some more cash for lines in the making. Me, I’m all for HSR, especially in China, and I’m putting my thoughts on paper (or electronically, rather) today as a civilian independent from the Chinese “rail system”. I’m a nearly 30-year old Swiss with Chinese ancestry, married to a local and based in the Chinese capital. (There’s another Swiss part in me: I have been riding the rails in Switzerland since the 1990s!…)
Wenzhou: We’re Coming Out the Tunnel
While we wait for the final analysis as to who’s at fault in the awful Wenzhou crash, it looks like one as-yet unofficial explanation offered at civilian rail forums seems to be getting more and more buyers, so to speak. It hash been said that the rail disaster happened because Despatch told train D3115 (the train in front) to switch off its auto-positioning system so that it would vanish completely from the electronically controlled train radar system. It would proceed ahead at just 20 km/h an hour and slowly creep its way onward, relying solely on what the driver could see from his cabin with his naked eye. Sadly, train D301 wasn’t informed that there was a train D3115 ahead, so as it couldn’t see that very train on its radar, it “naturally” ploughed straight into train D3115, resulting in the awful accident.
Whatever the reasons might be, one thing has to be set out straight: there must not be another Wenzhou — best if ever, as in: No More Wenzhous, Period.
China’s high speed railway programme has had to slow down as a result. It is said that this is done “for safety reasons”, but the writing is on the wall: Nothing bad must be allowed to happen on the high speed rails from now until the start of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. (That’s when the top leadership comes in for a massive change of guards.) Being a country where politics takes priority above anything else, the average traveller has to probably put up with slower speeds for about a year or so until the new guards are safely installed. That said, I personally have seen cases of drivers flaunting the temporary speed limits (which is technically safe!).
300: The Speed Limit to Break
And it’s thank heavens that drivers are experimenting with faster speeds: I was informed that during the tests on the Beijing-Shanghai HSR, 300 km/h, 350 km/h and speeds in excess of that (around 380-400 km/h if I remember it right) were all part of the show.
The current speed limit, 300 km/h, is already considered “fast” if you compare it to the trains of the 1990s, but it is still considered too slow in the high speed world. A more satisfactory temporary limit would have it at a rather “green” 320 km/h, where power is optimized in terms of usage.
You see, when China reduced its HSR speed limit, it lost out both at home and amongst the human race — I’m not kidding you. For a fairly long time, Chinese 350 km/h train services were the fastest services on the planet. China was the first nation to do 350 km/h commercial train services. The loss of these services is not only a loss for China, but for the world and for the human race as well.
Thankfully, the Beijing-Shanghai HSR is optimized for speeds up to 380 km/h in regular commercial operations, and in the section in central eastern China, a CRH380AL train did 486.1 km/h, making it the fastest train in commercial operation. (That train often runs this very stretch, albeit at markedly lower speeds.)
Looking into the future, we will see the day when 350 km/h becomes standard. That’s probably when the Beijing-Shanghai HSR will run at 380 km/h for extended periods of time. Tech folks in the rail world have told me that the rails on this HSR line are optimized for faster speeds and can actually cause a train running too slow (as in too slow too frequently) to derail! My end, I buy those experts because I trust my sources — and plus, I don’t like buying the idea of sudden death on the rails. (It’s bad enough in the air already.)
When the day comes that full speed services resume on the Beijing-Shanghai HSR, the two cities will be linked in just under four hours on the fastest direct train. Most trains will travel the length in just around four hours (instead of the present 5 hours 30 minutes on the G train with the most stops).
And that means that the airliners will be given very intense competition. It’s already pretty pointless to attempt to fly between these two hubs right now. Fog has sucked in much of Beijing as I write this, so it’s 1:0 rails to air right now. Air travel also means a less green way of getting around — plus the mandatory switch-off decree for mobile phones. Ai ya!
A Mileage Programme: Giving the Airliners Serious Heat
Seriously, who invented domestic flights in the first place? They’re loud, prone to delays, and either full of Chinglish or unsmiling flight attendants (or worst: both). And you do that just to gain a few hundred or low-in-the-thousands miles for a bit of “cheap vanity” (you hate those blackout periods, right?)…
While domestic flights might make sense for a trip from Harbin to Kunming, or from Ürumqi to Xiamen, they probably make less sense for the two-hour shuttle from Beijing to Shanghai. Even if they can outdo the train in that same time period, they can’t do midway stops. Plus, it’ll be a while before Air Traffic Control sets them free — especially for chronically busy routes…
I have to tell you, I have been told to wait in a one-man private lounge at the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport once because my flight to Beijing was late. This was in a private lounge that was basically exclusive to just a few travellers. It’s not like you wanted to get to that bit of exclusivity! Even in these lounges, an announcement of “Sorry Sir, your flight’s delayed!” sends shivers down you, and you get anxious, like I did.
While I’m on about flights (and delays, urgh), and those stops and mileages, I’d like to see China Railways put its efforts in creating a nationwide railway mileage programme. Want cheaper fares? Use the trains more and more. Want a free trip? Do a few round-trips in HSR Business Class between the two metro hubs.
Flight companies need not moan at the lost opportunity: long-haul domestic flights (like I said, Harbin to Kunming and the ilk), flights to Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, and flights elsewhere overseas are still “yours”. (For the time being.) In the meantime, smart travellers in China on the rails benefit: you’re moving, faster, and feeling better because your personalized ticket is used to the benefit of you being able to get from A to B in a sleeker fashion — and you’ve just pocketed a fair number of rail miles.
Remember I’m on my way to nearly 50,000 km — and that’s even as China has no rail mileage programme yet. I’m already a dedicated rail traveller. Imagine the Chinese rails once they get that programme up and running. Provided they run it right, it could be a real magnet for dedicated rail riders.
More Affordable: Access to Cheaper Seats
Sharp-eyed travellers will spot two variants of the still-new CRH380AL trains: those with two First Class carriages and two mixed First & Business Class carriages at the ends of the trains (which also feature a mixed Second Class & Dining Car in one carriage), and those with two First Class carriages (two additional First Class carriages with Business Class seats at both ends of the train), a full-size Business Class carriage, and a full Dining Car. The former is a more recent debut and has been referred to as the Sheng Guangzu version, as present-day rail minister Sheng Guangzu favours less expensive variants so as to get more people onboard. (The latter was the previously “standard” version under former rail minister Liu Zhijun.)
The former version, which I regard as the “budget” version (as it carries more budget travellers), can be even more “budget” if one or two carriages were reserved for those using a frequent travel swipe card (initially for Second Class to boost those without the cash), as can be seen on the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity Railway (where it’s actually also available for First Class people). (You can also do these on other trains — start, as usual, with one Second Class carriage reserved for cardholders.) Discounts won’t be deep, but we could start about 5% – 10% off for frequent riders (and, to encourage riders, a CNY 20 credit (stored on the card) for the first purchase).
China Railways can also learn a bit from its Formosan counterparts. Taiwan High Speed Rail offers riders travelling in Standard Class the option of tickets as low as nearly 40% on some trains — provided you book early (the same is valid for a fair bit of Europe HSR as well). While the rail mandarins might shriek and lose hair as they fear that this will eat into the profits, it’s actually better this way as it brings passengers to the HSR trains. It’s also good news because the more HSR riders we’ll have, the less regular rail passengers there will be (you can’t be in two places at the same time!), and the more we can take off the existing, non-HSR network. (The freight trains need regular rail for all they are worth!)
We’ll start easy on China Railways: Roll out a frequent rider card, offer riders 5% of discounts to start with, and see how things work. Reserve about a carriage or two for regulars. Sounds good?
As for the other variant of the CRH380AL (the one with the full-size Business Class carriage), we’ll use these for routes through parts of economically richer China, like the Beijing-Shanghai, Beijing-Guangzhou corridor, and for long-distance direct travel. Let’s keep some of these as well. There’s always a train for somebody!
More Powerful Regular Rail: Let’s Do 180!
In the meantime, China’s got to keep on developing regular rail as well, as there are just too few rich folks who travel in super-deluxe high speed trains day in, day out. (And I ain’t one of ‘em!)
I have been doing a fair bit of research in this, and am happy to see China coming out with the HXD3D electrical locomotive, which can do speeds up to 200 km/h. That’s the locomotive: we need carriages as well for the riders! Some of the fastest carriages in China come in the form of Type 25T carriages, which you can see en masse if you’re doing night trains. These things are designed for speeds up to 160 km/h and technically should work even at speeds up to 180 km/h.
What China needs are more of these trains — express locomotives and carriages that support such speeds. These things need to run at speeds around 160 (or even 180) km/h so that people get from A to B faster. They would only be about one notch away from high speed rail. Finally, we need more direct services — Z trains (so far, the Z train numbering index is basically unused territory). Let’s see a daytime Beijing-Shanghai Z train for less! It’ll probably take riders about 10 hours, tops, without midway stops.
Riding the Rails Should Be Like Riding the Metros
I’d like to see access to the rails on par with access to the Metros. It’s that easy.
Looking into the future, I would like to, one day, in the near future, come to the Beijing South Railway Station with my personalized prepaid railway card, and choose a train to board via the ticketing machine, using my card to pick a train (and my choice of carriage and seat) to ride. I’d like to pay direct from my card, which is linked to my passport number, and get a ticket straight out the machine or have it electronically registered in the card. Then I’d like to use the card (or the ticket) to get into the lounge and, more importantly, onto the train. I’d like to use the same card to get out of the exit gates at the final destination. I’d like the conductor to scan my card to make sure I’m travelling with a valid ticket.
I would also like to see this card so well linked into the whole system that my iPhone (or Mac using Safari or any other recent browser) can easily book a trip via an app (or a web site), whereupon it would send information of my trip to the fare system in the rail network so that when I use my card at the faregates, it lets me in. I would like to see Add Value machines to these cards linked either to a cash deposit system or to a bank card, credit card or debit card. Ideally, it would re-add cash once I reach a certain minimum limit, like the Oyster Card in London.
China is a great nation that has built the Great Wall, invented paper, come out with gunpowder, and I’m sure as hell that it can pull this one off as well.
I’d Like To See Peking Duck Onboard
While ordinary riders rejoice at the new CNY 2 bottle of mineral water on trains, or food that costs a maximum of “just” CNY 15 a pop, I’m looking for something the other end: deluxe food onboard. I think our super-expensive Business Class tickets should entitle us to something better than pre-prepared “worker’s food” (because it’s probably what those workers in the field get for lunch as well). And although we love the experience, we’re sure that Peking Duck might want to join us onboard as well.
It just has to be said: there is no better Chinese experience than to sit in the best seats on the train, with awesome views of the mountains of Shandong whizzing past you as you speed your way up to the capital — and Peking Duck’s coming your way.
How cool would that be!…
Some Other Thoughts
Let me just list these in the form of a bullet list… there… a little easier for me to get out of my mind…
- You can cuss at the present-day minister of railways Sheng Guangzu for as much as you like for slowing down the trains and for Wenzhou itself, but do remember that this is a veritable People’s Republic, where people have the say. It’s true that tickets have been a little pricey (especially for locals), and I wish they had cheaper food onboard as well. Some of Sheng’s pro-ridership moves (like cheaper tickets (albeit longer travel times), lower refund fees and more affordable onboard food) can’t be negated, period.
- I am, however, very concerned with rumours that new lines previously designed for 350 km/h or faster speeds might get downgraded so that they physically cannot support anything faster than 250 km/h. It’s in the physics: you need a longer curve for faster trains. I’d rather they fund the rails more for faster trains than to do a similar route for slower trains — then find out that they should have done it faster first — then build a new line altogether. It’s a massive waste of taxpayer money!
- As for the former rail minister Liu Zhijun, it’s true that this guy was corrupt — especially morally, but also economically, but he kept Chinese HSR growth going and was an avid and brave doer. The guy’s a bit like a Steve Jobs: forceful, powerful, at times brash and arrogant, but he did things, and that’s what I look in a leader. His replacement, Sheng Guangzu, has none of these Steve-ish qualities.
- I wish the railways had English support outside of pre-recorded announcements and some direction signs. The railways need to put in more effort so that international passengers can get from A to B in the international tongue — English.
- Finally, let me just say that despite Wenzhou, Chinese HSR is still pretty safe. Remember that lines designed for 300 km/h and faster are treated with the maximum standards. I’ve heard positive news bits to the tune that if one safety system fails (or if the driver takes a short nap), additional safety measures kick in. I call that — safe.
The David Feng Upshot
About eleven years back, I returned to China, intentionally wiling to stay away from the rails. Back then, the idea of being confined to a random seat in Hard Seat class drove me away, and none of these super-cool tilting trains that Switzerland had were on the Chinese rails. In fact, I did 350,000 km on the road first and got into the Beijing Subway “biz” first (by doing a personal wiki on the network) before I tried my hands on the Chinese rails. For the first eight years until 2008, I completely stayed off the rails — not taking a train once.
What happened on 01 August 2008 totally shocked me (positively!): I went onboard one of these screamers that maxed out at around 350 km/h. Tracy and I recorded our absolute maximum on a Hangzhou-Shanghai-Nanjing train, when it went at speeds up to 351 km/h just south of Shanghai. I used to test drive cars on the freeway (in safe conditions), and none of my speed records came anywhere close.
I’m all for speed, but also for efficiency, safety, and above all, comfort. The one moment in Chinese HSR I’ll remember is me taking a nap in what they call the “freefall” position (head and face on the cushion, but not 100% flat lest I suffocate). It lasted for 30 minutes but was one of the smoothest 30 minutes ever. I just boarded train G4 from Shanghai Hongqiao back to Beijing South. After nearly 50 hours of back-to-back meetings, I couldn’t pull out the Mac to work, so I gave myself an hour of peace. It worked brilliantly with the 30 minute nap. As I woke up, I heard a few Japanese riders probably taking a good look at me in this Germanic position (Germanic because one of my family friends who does the “freefall” position is a German).
I smiled, got up, and we pulled into Nanjing South. After the train pulled out again, I got to work. Dinner was served at 17:30 sharp, at precisely the moment I requested it from the attendant, so I could get work done and be mentally ready to take a little break. Our train rolled back into Beijing South at 18:48 with nary a minute’s delay.
This is what I want to see, more and more, from Chinese high speed rail. Comfort. Service. Safety. Speed. Nicer naps on board.
Oh, and also wifi. Tweeting at 300 km/h does feel quite different, you know…
The way I see it, I’m giving Chinese HSR the green light it is rightfully entitled to.