THE heart of China’s national railway policy has been the pursuit of speed. And having built the world’s longest high-speed network from scratch, this week the country proudly launched its showcase project, the 1,318km (820-mile) Beijing-Shanghai line. Running at speeds of over 300km an hour, the sleek electric train cuts the travel time between China’s two most important cities by nearly half, to four hours and 48 minutes.
The service is designed as a rival to air travel. Indeed, at Beijing South station, the ultra-modern facility resembles an airport. The other terminus, meanwhile, actually is at Shanghai’s domestic airport. But that means travellers lose the benefit of a downtown arrival, often touted as an advantage of trains. Even on intermediate stops, stations are far from urban centres.
Travel time might have been shorter still, but for controversy over the train’s speed. Journeys of 350km an hour had been promised. Then a system-wide slowdown to around 300km an hour was announced. At the time, the government insisted this was to save energy. It strenuously denied that safety was a factor, despite concerns from Chinese and foreign engineers. But now an official at China’s Railway Electrification Bureau admits the slowdown was based on concerns over safety after all.
The Beijing-Shanghai line took only three years to build. With a price tag of $34 billion, it may never recoup its costs. Still, better connections could bring more productivity gains to China than in more developed countries. Ying Jin at Cambridge University says high-speed rail could foster development away from China’s megacities.
Meanwhile, for those who find the line’s suburban stations inconvenient, Mr Ying says, people need only be patient. With urbanisation in China roaring ahead, it is only a matter of time before the cities pull up at the stations, rather than the other way around.