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beijing-speed-train.jpgIt used to take the best part of 24 hours to travel by train from Beijing to the southern boomtown of Guangzhou. But as of Wednesday, when the world's longest high-speed rail line opened for business, the 1,428-mile journey has been cut to a mere eight hours.

The trains travel at an average speed of 186mph, passing through five provinces as they tear through the countryside.

China's high-speed rail network is one of the country's most expensive infrastructure projects and a symbol of its long-term ambitions. Yet the programme has recently been plagued by scandal – a bullet train crash killed 40 people, a section of track collapsed in the rain and a top railway official was sacked for corruption – raising concerns about its safety, sustainability and cost.

On Wednesday, one bullet train left Beijing for Guangzhou at 9am; an hour later, another began its journey in the opposite direction. The Beijing-bound train was briefly delayed by snow in the afternoon, according to the South China Morning Post, which live-blogged the journey. At one point, the train slowed to 114mph, most probably because of the weather.

The world's longest line consists of four main divisions, running between the capital, Beijing, the central transport hub Zhengzhou in Henan province, Wuhan in central China, and Guangzhou. The line connecting Wuhan and Guangzhou opened in 2009, and the one between Beijing and Zhengzhou held its first trial run over the weekend.

The line stops in 35 cities and will eventually reach Hong Kong. According to the state news service, Xinhua, 155 pairs of trains will run every day. Older trains connecting the two cities will remain in service.

Business-class tickets on the line sell for £270, more than a month's salary for many of Beijing's low-level white-collar workers. Standard seats cost £86, about twice as much as a bunk on an older train though slightly cheaper than most flights.

China's high-speed rail programme was established in 2007, and its first line, connecting Beijing and nearby Tianjin, opened just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The system now has more than 5,780 miles of track.

The railways ministry has announced plans to invest $400bn (£248bn) to complete a 10,000-mile network by 2020, with four main lines running east to west and four from north to south.

A bullet train accident in July 2011 outside the coastal metropolis Wenzhou sparked widespread public outrage over the speed of construction and corruption within the expansive ministry. One train rear-ended another, derailing eight cars and sending four hurtling off of a bridge.

In response, the ministry launched an investigation into the crash – the culprit was identified as a signal equipment malfunction – and reduced the trains' top speed by 30mph.

Five months before the crash, the head of the ministry, Liu Zhijun, had been sacked for corruption. Afterwards, a series of exposés in the Chinese press revealed that railway officials had accepted enormous bribes, handed lucrative contracts to friends and cut corners on construction materials.

In March, a 300-metre section of high-speed rail track in central Hubei province collapsed after heavy rains; it had been set to open two months later. A whistleblower told Chinese media the construction company had been using earth to build the track instead of gravel, leaving it dangerously vulnerable to bad weather.

Railway authorities have said they will prioritise safety in future. According to the Associated Press, Zhou Li, a high-level official, told reporters at the weekend that the ministry had "developed a full range of effective measures to manage safety" and "can control safety management".

Some analysts say China's rail system is necessary for continued growth – huge investments in the rail system shielded China from the worst effects of the 2009 global financial crisis and another economic slump earlier this year.

Yet the project has proved costly. The railways ministry, one of China's biggest borrowers, is saddled with £190bn in debt. It lost £874m in the first half of this year alone.

While the ministry has not disclosed the total cost of the Beijing-Guangzhou line, the section between Wuhan and Guangzhou cost £11.56bn, according to Chinese media reports.

Investment in the system slowed in aftermath of the Wenzhou crash, but has risen almost 250% year-on-year as of October, according to Bloomberg.

Editorials in the state-run press have said the new line will take pressure off the country's transportation system during the coming spring festival holiday, when hundreds of millions of urban residents travel back to their ancestral home villages in what is the world's largest annual human migration.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/dec/26/china-high-speed-rail-bullet-trains
Tag(s) : #Asie et Pacifique