Tea Leaf Nation
After major setbacks, high-speed rail is becoming the unifying force Chinese planners had long hoped it would be.
Sold out train cars. Protests in cities denied high-speed rail access. And, now, a stunning map depicting a China unified by crisscrossing lines of steel that has gone viral across social media. After early setbacks, including a deadly collision and the fall of the country’s minister of railways, China’s gaotie — Chinese for high-speed rail, or HSR — is finally hitting its stride, connecting over 100 cities with a dedicated network of around 10,000 miles of track — more than the rest of the world combined.
In late July, an unofficial map of China’s HSR network created by Tao Anjun, a professor at Southeast University in Nanjing and self-professed rail fan and map geek, went viral on the Chinese web (complete with Korean, Japanese, and English versions, the latter pictured above). The detailed color-coded graphic mimics the simplicity and user-friendliness of a subway map, though Chinese transportation officials have emphasized in response that the map should not be used a substitute for official train schedules. Even so, the image and its enthusiastic reception have heralded HSR’s arrival as a mainstream, and increasingly beloved, part of everyday life.
Netizens liken the HSR network to a subway system; one that’s convenient, fast, and integrated. “HSR has transformed China into one big city. Someone can live in Shijiazhuang and work in Beijing,” one commentator noted on mobile message platform WeChat. (The cities are about 180 miles apart, or a little over an hour on HSR.) Web users have said merely looking at the map makes them want to travel, tour, and eat. One version of the map going around points out the many possibilities for foodies along the Nanjing-Chengdu line, beginning with blood and vermicelli soup in Nanjing, then duck neck in Wuhan, and ending with hot pot in Chengdu.
The opening of a new line generates genuine excitement in cities slated to join the grid. In March, officials announced that the line running from Yanji — at 400,000 people, this northeastern city in Jilin province is small by Chinese standards — to the provincial capital of Changchun would open in October, cutting travel time from about five hours by bus to two by rail. As one Changchun resident from Yanji gushed, “Ever since we heard the news, my whole family has been looking forward to it.”
Even in places already graced by HSR, the possibility of a new line gets people buzzing. In July, questions from local residents about a proposed direct route between Hangzhou and Wenzhou dominated a call-in town hall meeting held by Wenzhou’s head of development and reform. And cities passed over for HSR have complained loudly. In May, thousands of citizens from Linshui, a county in Sichuan, amassed in a reverse NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) protest, seeking both the convenience and the economic bump that a rail station would have brought.
It wasn’t always like this. China opened its first HSR line on Oct. 12, 2003, but as it sought to greatly expand its network in the following years, it was met with deep skepticism at home and abroad. Critics questioned the wisdom of investing up to $100 billion a year into a perceived boondoggle, particularly given the tens of billions of dollars of public debt incurred by the country’s Ministry of Railways, and predicted passengers would be reluctant to adopt a more expensive mode of transport.
These concerns quickly proved justified. Early reports suggested that some trains, which barrel between cities at speeds of up to 240 miles an hour, traveled nearly empty. Sticker shock was common for many early middle-class rail riders, as prices for HSR train tickets were (and still are) significantly higher than for conventional trains. For example, HSR tickets between Nanjing and Shanghai ranged from $22 to $35, while their conventional train counterparts went for less than $14, leading many to take to the Internet to complain.
But it was two events in 2011 that truly shook public confidence in China’s HSR. First in February, Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun came under investigation for corruption and abusing his position, possibly taking as much as $152 million in bribes. The scandal led to his dismissal, expulsion from the Communist Party, and, finally, a “suspended death sentence,” likely equivalent to a life sentence. Then in July of that year, a collision between two high-speed trains passing through the coastal city of Wenzhou killed 40 people, casting a pall over the entire HSR system. The collision was the result of improper regulation, poor control center management, and unsafe speeds. Failed state-led attempts to limit media coverage only exacerbated public anger. Comments, like those made soon after the accident by real estate mogul Wang Shi on Weibo, were indicative of the mood: “Why are there so many accidents on our high-speed trains? Obviously, the Ministry of Railways has sacrificed safety for speed. It’s time to hit the brakes!”
The official investigation into the crash found 54 officials responsible and led to widespread changes. The government overhauled safety regulations; for example, speeds are now capped at about 186 miles per hour, and certain train models have been recalled. New construction of railways slowed as a result of declining investment, and tickets prices were cut in response to declining passenger traffic. But the real hammer came down in March 2013, when Beijing dismantled the Ministry of Railways, splitting its authority between the Ministry of Transportation and China Railway, a state-owned enterprise. One of the most powerful economic and political players in government, the ministry was broken up to address concerns over corruption and wastefulness. But the move was also an attempt to shore up public confidence.
These reforms have made the post-2011 years safe and uneventful, but the biggest boost to the acceptance of HSR may simply be the passage of time. As initial skepticism and wariness over this massive project faded, it has been replaced by an increasing awareness of its inherent value. A 2014 paper by the World Bank reported its promising impact on businesses and mobility. In fact, the travel and tourism industries may be its biggest fans, capitalizing on an increasingly affluent society with clever slogans like: “Eat Guangdong dim sum in the morning, climb Mount Yuelu in Changsha at noon, and visit Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan in the evening.” (The total distance between these three is some 600 miles in total, about the distance from New York City to Detroit.)
As a result, people have voted for HSR in the only way they can in a non-democratic capitalist society: with their wallets. Even with expensive fares and frequent trains, many trips are now sold out. Daily ridership, which continues to grow, hit 2.49 million in 2014 and is now already double the number of passengers on domestic flights.
When I rode the arterial Beijing-Guangzhou line in July, I walked along the 16-car train and counted no empty seats. When I remarked how packed the train was, my seat neighbor noted it just made too much sense to take HSR these days for medium or long distances, given how much of a time drain domestic flights can be, especially with their extensive security checks and chronic delays. For many Chinese people — whose relatives and friends are often spread all over the expansive country as they pursue different opportunities — more time to spend together is a valuable commodity.
It’s a remarkable achievement, but not one easily replicated elsewhere. Despite Chinese efforts to sell their expertise and technology abroad, from Mexico to Thailand, only one plan — the Ankara-Istanbul line in Turkey, operational in 2014 — has come to fruition so far. With state backing, seemingly unlimited funds, and a dense and urbanizing population, China’s HSR development enjoys many unique advantages. It is free from concerns like raising sufficient capital, securing rights-of-way (the right to build track across land without possessing it), or dealing with local opposition to specific rail routes, issues that have stymied HSR development elsewhere. But at least in China, HSR is finally becoming the comprehensive and reliable system authorities have long sought.
What was once the object of concern and skepticism is now a point of national pride. Foreigners impressed with China’s HSR are frequent social media fodder, such as this video of a Swedish man successfully balancing a coin during his ride. Images of crowded trains are another recurring theme; one uploader also made sure to include some pointed remarks for earlier skeptics, saying: “No one’s saying China’s HSR loses money now.” But many comments are simply appreciative, underscoring how HSR has transformed the country the last few years. “HSR is fast and comfortable; you should try to take it whenever possible,” one Weibo user wrote. “China’s gaotie,” he added, “is number one in the world.”