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Fascinating Facts About China’s High-Speed Trains

Posted by Morris M on August 18, 2017 in Technology

When it comes to high speed travel, Asia is the future. Compared to the slowly-chugging automotive dystopia of the USA, the region of Asia-Pacific is a fast paced wonderland. The Usain Bolt of this endless race? China. By an extremely fast country mile.

Starting in the early years of the 21st Century, China began to build high speed track. And build. And build. Fast forward at near hyperspeed to 2017, and the country is a vast network of bullet trains hurtling millions of passengers over distances we’d usually consider “impossible.” While Japan may have started the locomotive speed boom in Asia, it’s China that has made it its own. And, as China tends to do, they’ve also made it bigger, crazier and more fascinating than anybody else.

It’s Really, Really Fast

First things first. You should know that China’s high speed rail service is fast. How fast? Let’s just say that, if you could build a train track straight upwards, you could take a bullet train from Beijing to the Moon in under sixty seconds. 

OK, that was a lie. But one with a serious purpose: to illustrate just how mind-blowingly fast China’s trains are capable of going. Two of the three fastest commercial trains in the world can be found in China, both in Shanghai. Of these, the Shanghai Maglev is the fastest, topping out at 267 mph. When not carrying passengers, it can hit 311 mph. While impressive, it’s not the fastest ever. Japan’s experimental bullet train has peaked at 366 mph. But Japan’s bullet train won’t be online till 2027, while Shanghai citizens have already been hitting these mind-melting speeds for over ten years.

Of course, it’s one thing to hear big numbers, it’s another to actually process them. So here’s an example. The Beijing-Shanghai line will take you 819 miles in slightly under five hours. That’s further than the distance from New York to Atlanta, in less than the time it takes you to binge watch a new Netflix mini-series.

It’s Ridiculously Cheap

Given the fantastic speeds Chinese trains can hit – nearly half the speed of a flight, without all the waiting around and egregious security checks – you might expect them to be pricey. Not so. While China’s rails don’t quite fulfil the Communist promise of travel for the poorest of the poor, they’re still well within the affordable bracket for most commuters.

Take our crazy-fast Beijing-Shanghai line from the last entry. Wanna guess how much a second class seat will set you back? 553 Yuan, or around 80 bucks. Wanna guess how much our shorter, NYC to Atlanta journey costs with Amtrak? $122, plus the soul of your firstborn child. OK, we made that last bit up. But that’s still an extra $40 for a service that takes over three times longer to get you not quite so far.

If you’re catching the regular commuter line, things are even cheaper. The 24 kilometer Changle to Weifang line in Shandong Province is 4.5 Yuan, or $0.67. You better believe a lot of people ride these lines. In the same way that the shape of America’s cities was dictated by the arrival of the car, creating the suburbs, China’s cities are now shaped by the bullet train.

It’s Absurdly Popular

Since China’s trains are so fast and so cheap, you’d probably expect them to also be popular. You’d be even more right than you already think you are. China’s high speed services don’t just attract crowds. They attract the biggest crowds you’ve ever seen. In 2016, the number of passengers was calculated at a staggering 1.5 billion.

That’s more than the number of people who actually live in China, a country not exactly known for having a modest population. To put it another way, given the estimated global population of 7.5 billion, 20 percent of all humans in the world ride on China’s high speed rail in a single year. That means that if aliens randomly abducted five people from across the globe and interrogated them, they’d find at least one of them had ridden China’s bullet trains.

To be clear, we’re just using these numbers as an illustration. Even a super-authoritarian state like China can’t log every single person using its trains, and many people are presumably counted multiple times for different trips. Still, even if no one’s buying a season ticket and logging endless individual journeys, 1.5 billion is still a crazy number. Crazier still is that it’s only going to get bigger.

China has More High Speed Track than the Rest of the World Combined

We mentioned earlier that China’s love affair with high speed rail eclipses that of even Japan. It’s worth reiterating just how deep this love affair runs. China has the largest high speed rail network in the world, with over 12,500 miles of track. That isn’t just more than the country with the next biggest system (Japan). It’s not even more than the next five countries combined. It’s more the entire rest of the planet. If you were to lay every single non-Chinese piece of high speed rail back to back, you’d still have less than China does.

And China ain’t slowing down. There are plans to lay another 9,320 miles of track by 2025. Looking at maps of the country’s infrastructure plans, the entire eastern region is going to become a network of squiggly, high speed lines, as dense as any normal rail network in another country. Even Hainan island off the south coast is ringed by a high speed line. Hainan, for the record, is barely bigger than Maryland.

The result has already been the creation of incredible megacities, as people in Shenzhen can commute to Guangzhou, a distance of nearly 85 miles in as little as 30 minutes.

The Difference from Before is Insane

Go back in time just 20 years and hop a train in China. What would you expect to find? No high speed rail, clearly, but maybe a system that was already noticeably modernizing? A rail network that might be in need of a serious upgrade, but was at least essentially solid?

Well, prepare your time traveling past self for one heck of a shock. China’s trains in the mid to late 90s weren’t just slower. They were slow. How slow? Try an average speed of 37 mph.

No, we didn’t miss a zero out there. Chinese trains in the dying years of the 20th Century were awful. Most major cities weren’t connected, and the idea of even a good sized town having its own rail line was almost unheard of. What few trains there were ran painfully slowly, and were so overcrowded they’d make rush hour on the Tokyo commute look roomy.

Back then, the smart money would’ve been on China becoming a car nation, like the USA. The Communist Party had other ideas. And when the Party sets its mind to something in China, it tends to get done