By Yang Jianxiang (China Features)
Zeng Xiaowei, a businesswomen lives in Fuzhou, the provincial capital of southeast Fujian Province. Normally, when she wants to visit her parents in Xiamen, about 300 kilometers away in south Fujian, it is a five hour bus ride.
Zeng could fly home, but that would cost three times as much.
The train is not a good choice either because the railway was not originally build the shortest route - along the coastline linking the two cities.
Fujian is on the Taiwan strait. In the days when relations between Taiwan and Chinese mainland was tense, the building of railway along the coastal frontier was not seen as politically sensible by the mainland authorities.
Because of that decision, Zeng's trip to see her parents by train would take about 11 hours.
Things changed recently when a new, 275 km railway went into operation on April 26, 2010. Trains on the Fuzhou-Xiamen High Speed (HS) Rail line run at maximum speed of 250 km/h.
"The entire trip only takes one and a half hours. And one train is available every hour. This is very convenient," says Zeng.
China's development of high speed rail may have been late but over the past five years, China has accomplished what other countries have taken decades to achieve.
China's first HS rail, the 120 km Beijing to Tianjin inter-city line, went into operation on August 1, 2008. According to the Ministry of Railway (MOR), by the end of 2009, there were 6,552 km of HS track in operation and an additional 10,000 km were under construction.
It is expected that by the end of 2012, China will have 13,000 km of HS rail in service in a rail system covering 110,000 km. A HS rail network with four North-South and four East-West lines will take shape and most of the provincial capitals of China will be accessible from Beijing via HS train in under 8 hours.
One of these, the Wuhan-Guangzhou HS railway line, opened in December 2009, runs 33 trains day. MOR statistics suggest that their average occupancy rate is 84%, with the busiest day recording 82,200 passengers.
HS trains carried 2.132 million of passengers traveling between Wuhan and Guangzhou in the 40-day peak period surrounding the Lunar New Year's Day. This provided great relief of pressure on conventional train service and other means of transport. The HS train is expected to help in other peak seasons like National day and summer vacation for students.
The development of HS rail is a response to growing transport demand that results from quick-paced industrialization and urbanization.
Large scale investments in HS projects, involving a long chain of industries, also help the national economy in difficult economic times.
More importantly though, infrastructure building such as this has a deep reaching effect on the entire society. A common saying of Chinese villagers in the early 1980s when the country's economic reform had just started, said "Build the road before building wealth". A current version of the saying might well begin with "Build the HS railroad..".
High-speed rail has many advantages: it is fast, comfortable, and has a large carrying capacity. And, its environmentally friendly nature is particularly, in keeping with global trends.
HS runs with little noise, vibration, and carbon emissions. MOR figures show it is cost-efficient and energy saving, consuming less than 16 kw/h of electricity per person. This is 20% savings compared to flight and 30% compared to automobile travel.
Comprehensive energy consumption by the HS train is 0.24 ton of coal for each 10,000 yuan of revenue, which is 43% that of the conventional train. The construction of HS railway is comparatively land saving, because the rail base is narrower than the conventional one, and in the case of the Wuhan-Guangzhou line, 80% of the rails are laid on bridges or in tunnels.
HS rail development is also a way to achieve the government's strategic goal for technical and equipment modernization. The normal speed of trains running on the Wuhan-Guangzhou line is 350 km/h. It is the world's fastest train in service. A faster train, with maximum speed up to 500 km/h, is being developed.
According to MOR, by August 2010, China's HS trains have safely traveled 80 million km, carrying more than 300 million ticketed passengers. China claims to be the world leader is rail, and particularly HS rail technologies
Chinese rail technology comes from several sources: independent innovation; developed in partnership with other countries; and through technology transfer. MOR statistics showed that between 2003 and 2009 China's railway sector submitted 946 patent applications.
"The international elements of our technology are all legally acquired," said Chen Juemin, director-general of MOR Department for International Cooperation, "There has been no dispute of that."
China's HS rail development has impressed the world. Since 2003 China has signed some 30 agreements and Memorandums of Understanding with other countries on cooperation in railway development. On that list are such countries as the United States, Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Poland and India.
China is prepared to share its HS rail expertise with the world. MOR encourages domestic companies to seek contracts abroad. As the chief coordinator of these activities, the Ministry has set up a handful of coordinating groups. Each specializes in affairs of a specific country or region. Diverse resources are being organized
into formidable bidding groups.
The high standard construction and sound operational records at home demonstrate China's capability in HS rail development. Together with reasonable prices and preferential government policies in bank credits, insurance and taxes, Chinese bidders are proving fairly competitive on the international market.
However, the Chinese bidder tasted a major setback in tendering for the Mecca- Medina phase II project in Saudi Arabia. The bidding group led by CSR (China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corporation) dropped out of the game in mid- July), because it lacked the experience of managing HS service abroad. MOR also admitted that it had a shortage of specialists, particularly people who were competent in foreign languages, to deal with rapidly growing export business.
To some foreigners, China's development of HS rail is a powerful way to rejuvenate what could otherwise be seen as a dying means of transport. Chinese HS rail is indeed one of the few truly valuable and competitive products that China has to offer the world. This achievement was attained through a proper strategy administered by the Chinese government, which proved invaluable at steering massive operations in a centralized manner.
The expansion of HS railways is reshuffling the business of mass transportation. Affected by the Zhengzhou to Xi'an HS trains, flights between the two cities have been driven out of the market. But the pressure of railway on other means of transport need not necessarily be negative. Competition may get tough but each mode of transportation has its own sphere where it excels.
Ground transport is best for short distance service. HS trains are likely best for traveling within the distance of 1,000 km. Air travel holds sway for longer distances.
As for Zeng Xiaowei, she says she will still take the bus from Fuzhou to Xiamen if she has heavy luggage, because the bus stop is near her home. Otherwise, she will choose the HS train.