Originally posted March 28, 2013
In early March, I took the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing. The route, which opened last December, is the longest high-speed rail line in the world. The train hurtles across the country at an average of 186 miles per hour, linking the southern megacity to the northern capital in a journey of 1,428 miles – roughly the driving distance from Boston to Miami.
The trip takes eight hours or longer (depending on the time of departure), which is far slower than flying, and my second-class ticket cost 862 RMB ($138), which is about the same as discount airfare from Guangzhou to Beijing. On the other hand, rail travel is far more comfortable than flying, and high-speed rail is, after all, awesome. I’ve taken many bullet trains to and from Shanghai, and always enjoyed them, so the chance to ride this astonishing new railway was hardly something I could resist. The only real question was how to get a seat.
Buying a train ticket in China: still Kafkaesque
For the average foreigner, booking a train ticket in China has always been a trying process. As I headed to Guangzhou South Station, I half hoped the gleaming new facility would set a good example for the future by having a straightforward and convenient system for buying tickets.
Nope. As usual, the experience was Kafkaesque. There are two options for buying a ticket at the station. Banks of self-service ticket kiosks, with Chinese and English touch-screen interfaces, allow the traveler to choose the destination, departure date and time, and class of travel. This is almost too easy. But wait! You need to swipe a Chinese ID card in order to make the purchase – those of us holding foreign passports are out of luck. On to option B: the ticket hall.
“Bedlam” is a word that comes to mind at many of these ticket halls in China, with their infamous crowds and queues. The one at Guangzhou South Station was better than I had feared, but still stressful. Amazingly, there was no English to be seen in this ticket hall, which would be understandable at a backwater bus stop, but was harder to explain at this huge and vital station. Given the global hype about the new Guangzhou-Beijing line, did it not occur to the Ministry of Railways that some foreigners might actually want to ride the thing?
Before doing anything else, I needed to find the train schedule – but that was easier said than done. At the back of the ticket hall was an information booth with a couple of employees. I asked one of them for a schedule, and he handed me a Chinese-only brochure with a vast chart covered with microscopic text. When I asked him to help me find the trains to Beijing, he pored over the brochure for a minute, then apologized and shrugged helplessly. (The train times were there; I later found them myself, with great difficulty.)
As it turned out, it was easier simply to go back to a kiosk, punch in the preferred day(s) of departure, and look at the available times that showed up. Then I could book my ticket at one of the windows in the ticket hall.
Infrastructure in China tends to be unsettlingly vast, so I had a familiar feeling when walking around Guangzhou South Station. Designed by a London architecture firm, the mammoth structure sprawls over some 5.2 million sq ft, with multiple floors for arrivals, departures, and metro lines. A beautiful 1,142-ft-long skylight soars over the departures concourse. The enormous size of the station seemed to be justified by the crowds, which even on a Monday afternoon were substantial. During Chinese New Year the place is probably packed, and usage will surely increase over time as the region continues to boom.
The Chinese government plans to merge Guangzhou with eight other cities in the Pearl River Delta to form a giant megalopolis which will be 26 times the size of Greater London and will contain 42 million people. Guangzhou South Station is a key transportation hub in this emerging super-city; no wonder it’s so big.
The trains themselves are a high-tech marvel. As a benighted American, I am used to old, slow, clattering trains on which you practically expect to see soot-covered men shoveling coal into a boiler. I can never forget the thrilling experience of riding the futuristic maglev to Pudong Airport in Shanghai, with its top speed of 268 mph and its terrifying 12-degree tilts.
The average cruising speed of the Guangzhou-Beijing bullet train, like the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train which I took a few weeks later, is about 186 mph. At Guangzhou South Station and Beijing South Station, passengers present their tickets, then descend on an escalator to an island platform, where their sleek, humming train awaits, like something out of Star Trek.
The trains are clean and comfortable, and the rides are extremely smooth. Uniformed train attendants come by wheeling drinks and snacks carts. Seats are equipped with power outlets and free Wi-Fi is supposedly offered. It’s like flying, minus the turbulence and inner ear issues.
The passengers are mostly middle-class, a high proportion of them businessmen. Peasants are not to be found on these trains – they can’t afford the tickets. Everyone seems to be glued to a smartphone, tablet, or laptop watching movies, chatting, or getting work done. As the long journey unfolds, many people doze off.
On the Guangzhou-Beijing trip, I enjoyed watching the rugged, green subtropical landscape of Guangdong province flying by:
And here are some views from my later Beijing-Shanghai journey:
At one point, I heard a great whoomp and the landscape outside was suddenly replaced by a white blur. The blur filled the window for a few seconds, then just as suddenly disappeared, leaving me blinking at the landscape again. It had been a train going by in the opposite direction, at a relative speed of about 375 mph.
The experience of riding these trains is not always as genteel as the Jetsons-like technology and aesthetics might lead one to expect. The annoyance begins at the station, where buying tickets can be a trial of endurance. At the Beijing station, brusque restaurant staff, like street hawkers, tried to hustle me into their suspect eatery. On the trains, the attendants go about their duties with grim professionalism and rarely smile. Ceiling-mounted video screens offer such fare as a Mr. Bean episode and a trashy American reality TV show.
Previous trips on China’s bullet trains have sometimes been even rockier: noisy, wandering passengers; violent action movies turned up to infuriating volumes on the train’s speakers.
Costly and unnecessary?
These minor annoyances aside, high-speed rail is simply the best way to travel. The experience is so awesome that many Americans who ride these trains for the first time will be thinking: Why can’t we have some?
It is not clear to me that America needs high-speed rail, at least over long distances. Building a bullet train line from, say, Boston to Atlanta probably would not make a great deal of sense, for reasons which Megan McArdle at The Atlantic lays out here and here. For that matter, it’s not clear that high-speed rail makes a great deal sense for China, either; the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported to the State Council in 2010 that the country’s large-scale network may be impractical and unaffordable.
Putting aside the economic issues, what interests me is the sheer energy and ambition behind China’s high-speed rail buildup. Within five or six years, China created the largest and perhaps most advanced high-speed rail network in the world. There are probably more total miles of high-speed track in China now than in the rest of the world combined, and the government plans to double that figure by the end of 2015.
This may prove to be a disastrous misallocation of resources, or it may not. We will have to see. But by any standard, it’s impressive.