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China’s high-speed train revolution

China’s high-speed train revolution happened in the blink of an eye. It transformed the movement of people and enabled tourists to pack more into China tours than ever before.

No country in the world does infrastructure development like China. Construction of the first high-speed train line only began in the early 2000s. Today China has 19,000km of high speed tracks – more than the rest of the world combined.

Fast in every way  

This doesn’t happen in other countries. In 2009 the UK started discussing proposals for a high-speed line between London and Birmingham. Seven years later and the UK still hasn’t laid down a single metre of track. In that same period China has built around 10,000km of high-speed lines and wants to sell its technology to the UK.

This is more than just an interesting stat for train spotters and infrastructure buffs. It has shrunk the country and enabled people (at least those that can afford it) to move with far greater ease than ever before. And remember – this is happening in a country that even in the 1980s prohibited independent travel on any transport without government permission.

China high-speed train

White or gold elephant?

The high-speed network is one of the triumphs of the Chinese developmental model. The Chinese government argues the network has improved movement of labour and goods between wealthy coastal areas and internal second-tier cities, reduced the burden on the rest of the rail network, and created a job stimulus through the construction and maintenance of lines and stations. China is also now a leading bidder for overseas high-speed rail contracts, offering its technology at a much cheaper price than Japan.

But critics of the scheme argue it is a white elephant that will struggle to pay back its enormous cost.  If the passenger usage is not enough to create profits that can repay the more than 1trillion RMB of debt financing used to pay for the railways, then the project could become a loss-making albatross around the government’s neck.

The good news for China’s Ministry of Railways is that the usage trend seems to be swinging in their favour. Workers’ wages are rising faster than the price of train fares so more passengers can afford to use the service. A handful of the lines, such as Beijing-Shanghai, have recently recorded an annual profit, showing it could pay its way.

busy station hangzhou

Great for tourists

There’s no doubt that tourists are some of the biggest beneficiaries of these new transport links. The improved infrastructure has been a huge factor in the continued growth of domestic tourism. It already contributes around 4% of national GDP, but the Chinese government hopes by 2020 to double the amount spent by tourists. And it believes fast trains will help in achieving this goal.

Foreign tourists are also major beneficiaries of the high-speed train spree. The Dragon Trip has tweaked its China tours for the better. Getting from Hong Kong to Yangshuo was a bum-numbing 10-hour bus journey. Now our travellers take a bullet train from Shenzhen to Guilin in three hours. From there it’s a short transfer to Yangshuo.

The bullet train also made it easy to add the mountains of Moganshan to our tour route in eastern China. The Hangzhou to Moganshan train takes only 16 minutes and the train from Hangzhou to Shanghai is only 1.5 hours. You can leave the chaos of China’s largest city and be in the tranquil bamboo forests of Moganshan only a couple of hours later.

And the trains are only getting better! It was announced last week that China will introduce new high-speed trains with wifi and fold-out beds that can withstand temperatures of -40 degrees!

Go West

China plans to continue with the fast pace of construction, aiming to have 45,000km of high-speed routes by 2030. The latest construction will connect China’s eastern seaboard with Xinjiang province in the far-west. Once the line between Baoji, west of Xi’an, and Lanzhou is completed, passengers will be able to take bullet trains all the way from Xuzhou in Jiangsu province to Urumqi in Xinjiang, a journey of around 3,500km.

The bigger picture behind the push west is to create a “new Silk Road”, connecting western China with Central Asia. But tourists may again be big beneficiaries of the improved links. The government wants to encourage tourists to visit Xinjiang to boost the local economy, especially after numbers fell following the Urumqi riots in 2009. Once finished it will become a whole lot easier to include the far-west in tours of China.

Travelling with us on a China tour in 2017? Read our blog post on the joys of train travel in China to understand why we believe trains are the best way to get about!




About Joseph McDevitt

Joe spent a year in China trying to get to grips with Mandarin while travelling as much as he could between language classes. He loves the mountains of Sichuan province and controversially prefers hotpot in Chengdu to Chongqing. Despite spending 6 months in Sichuan, he has still never hugged a panda.


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