After a Bumpy Ride China’s New High-Speed Rail Takes off at Almost 200mph

The world is poised for another railroad revolution, and China intends to lead the way. On July 1st China’s new CRH380 high-speed train began commercial service as it pushed off for the first time from its Beijing station. Ebullient passengers entered the modern, first-class-ish cabins and settled in for the train’s maiden voyage to Shanghai.

At nearly 200 mph.

The train is the fastest way to travel on land in China. But as impressive as 200 mph is, it’s a brake on the original plans. The CRH in the train’s name stands for China Rail High. The 380 denotes what the train’s top speed is supposed to be: 380 kilometers per hour (236 mph). However, a debate ensued in the days leading up to the July 1 launch that involved safety, engineering, and economics–and a highly-publicized criticism from a former top railway ministry engineer.

Had the train traveled at 380 km/h it would have been the fasted train in the world by far. As it stands, its 300 km/h operating speed only matches the pace of Japan’s shinkansen fleet of bullet trains as the world’s fastest. Despite its supposed top speed of 380 km/h, engineers and officials were trying to decide on an operation speed of 300 km/h or 350 km/h. The 300 km/h already halves the time it normally takes to travel from Beijing to Shanghai from ten hours to five, but Chinese nationalists wanted all the glory. The train serves to not only give China’s economy a boost, but its international image as well.

The CRH380 adds to what is already the world’s largest high-speed rail network. The network symbolizes China’s technology to the rest of the world and thus July 1 was a very proud day for the Chinese. “This has become a matter of national face,” Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at People’s University in Beijing told the LA Times. In recent days that face has taken a few slaps, making the CRH380 all the more symbolic.

Quenching some of the pride behind CRH380 are implications that China is a technologically mediocre country not capable of producing world-leading, innovative technologies. Yes, they have the largest high-speed rail network. Yes, no train is faster than the CRH380. But one might conclude that the system isn’t all that Chinese when considering that it relies heavily on foreign technologies: Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries, France’s Alstom, Germany’s Siemens, and Canada’s Bombardier all contributed technology that went into CRH380. Not so sure the train gets a “Made in China” sticker.

Adding more doubt to China’s technological prowess, a former senior engineer for the Chinese rail ministry, Zhou Yimin, said the claim that the train could run at 350 kph was “fraudulent,” reports China Daily. Quoted in The Financial Times, Mr. Zhou called the high speed targets as dangerous “fabrications” put in place by the former rail minister Liu Zhijun. He went on further to question the rail system’s safety, saying that China’s two largest rail manufacturing groups, China North Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corp and China South Locomotive and Rolling Stop Corp made their trains faster by “eating into the safety tolerances” of previous trains.

He went further still to say that rail authorities routinely covered up technical failures, citing emergency train stops due to land sagging beneath tracks or because equipment covers had fallen off. “In fact, there are often small problems on some lines,” he was quoted as saying in the 21st Century Business Herald, “and some problems that look small but actually are not–but all of them are being kept secret.” A spokesman from the Railways Ministry dismissed the comments, saying Mr. Zhou retired too early to know what the situation is now.

Two-hundred miles per hour huh? Um, you go first.

They’ve also had problems off the track. This past March it came to light that nearly $30 million of funds allocated to the CRH380 project had been misappropriated. Investigators uncovered multiple cases of embezzlement and other “irregularities” during a three month period of construction last year. The scandal reached all the way to the top of the Chinese government. Liu Zhijun, railway minister at the time, was dismissed and most likely faces criminal charges. Also dismissed was the rail ministry’s deputy chief engineer.

While corrupt rail ministry chiefs doesn’t necessarily mean compromised safety, it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence.

The CRH380 line includes 1,318 km of track between Beijing and Shanghai and cost $32.5 billion. Like the 1,500 km (3,100 miles) of high-speed rail being laid down to link up nine of China’s major manufacturing cities, the CRH380 is an investment in the country’s future. But not everyone sees it that way. In addition to safety and corruption, a major criticism dampening the champagne-smashing mood are the train’s ticket prices. Fares start out at $86. According to the LA Times, this is “equivalent to a tenth of an average urbanite’s monthly salary.” In a country where the growing worldwide divide between rich and poor is even more pronounced the CRH380 is viewed by many as an elite shuttle that leaves the poor in the dust. The priciest tickets will cost travelers $279, depending on travel speed and seating.

To put the pedal to the metal or not to put the pedal to the metal, that is the question.

I want you to appreciate how big of a deal it was–at least in my opinion–for CRH380 to come off the track at a pedestrian 300 km/h instead of 350. It’s much less a question of travel time as it is a matter of national pride. I’m sure Chinese officials and nationalists really, really wanted the CRH380 to pop off the line at 350 km/h, then headlines would read “China ‘blah’ ‘blah’ ‘blah’ Fastest Train In The World.” Mr. Zhou’s assertion that the train can’t actually reach 350 km/h makes one think that the economic argument–going 300 km/h lowers operating costs and thus ticket prices–is a cover up.

Chinese nationalists, not one to admit their country’s weaknesses easily, would never admit that China is simply incapable of building a faster train. The debate must be raging in that country much louder than we’re led on as reports of discontent always reach the rest of the world somewhat muted.

“Made In China” or not, the country’s commitment to high-speed rail is admirable. The Beijing-Shanghai line is the showpiece of a system that is already 5,000 miles long. Plans are in place to add 13,000 km (8,078 miles) of high-speed rail by the end of next year. At that point they will have more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined (the rapid expansion is already threatening China’s airlines, who just recently decided to meet the competition by forming a coalition). Like its passengers, the trains will help to whisk forward an economy that’s already a blur. The China of tomorrow will be quite a sight to see, but you may have to wait until you reach the next station to appreciate that.

Peter Murray
Peter Murray
Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.
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