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February 15, 2011
China’s high-tech train expansion a mismatch with needs of workers
China’s 91,000 kilometres (56,400 miles) of railways are the world’s longest and, in some cases, the fastest. The country’s drive to develop high-speed rail technology rivals its space program in terms of national pride and importance.
But the annual scrum for tickets home for the year’s major festival — the world’s biggest annual migration involving 230 million people — highlights the wide gap between showcase Chinese infrastructure and the often abysmal services available to the public.
The railway system, run by the Ministry of Railways, employs nearly 3.2 million people — more than the country’s 2.3 million army troops. New, modern railways snake across vast deserts and Himalayan tundra, while dozens of cities are connected by high-speed rail “bullet trains’’ that have vastly cut travel times — for travellers who can afford them.
China will invest 700 billion yuan (US$106 billion) in railways construction this year, railway officials say, as it works toward its goal of having 13,000 kilometres (8,060 miles) of high-speed rail in place by the year’s end.
That will include a 1,400 kilometre high-speed link between Beijing and Shanghai, the country’s commercial capital, that will halve travel time to less than five hours. It is due to open in June — a year ahead of schedule. A test run on the line in early December set China’s latest rail speed record, of 486.1 kilometres (301 mph).
Having successfully incorporated leading foreign technology into their own research and development, Chinese companies are now competing for projects with top foreign rivals, such as Bombadier and Japan Railways.
But all of that showcase technology has done little to alleviate the struggles of working class Chinese, especially migrant labourers who scrimp and save all year for their one visit back home. With railways running fewer slow, cheap trains, low-income workers often have to try for days to buy a ticket.
Those who don’t will often opt for a long-distance bus, rather than splash out their hard-earned savings on airfare or on tickets for China’s newly built “bullet trains,’’ which often cost just as much as travelling by air.
“The goal is to bump people up-market to faster trains, but they misjudged and people are instead taking the buses,’’ said Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “Their cash is precious, their time is less so.’’
The troubles with trains reflect the failure of China’s planners, obsessed with projecting a modern image both at home and abroad, to fully consider the appropriateness of the technology they are deploying, he said.
So for most of the 1.3 billion Chinese, travel during Spring Festival remains an ordeal from start to finish: Travelers who manage to get tickets then must endure crushing crowds just to get into and out of the trains.
“The annual problems with the railways during the Spring Festival are caused by shortages in capacity due to excessive investment in the wrong kind of railways,’’ says Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University.
“The solution lies in stepping up construction of regular railways. But China is headed in the wrong direction. It’s a big problem,’’ Zhao said.
Unlike air carriers, which are also state-owned but must compete for business, the railways remain a monopoly of the Railways Ministry, whose officials often peddle tickets in return for favours, while scalpers snap up what they can get in order to resell them for more.
If China had enough regular railway capacity there would be no illicit trafficking in tickets, says Zhao.
Besieged by complaints, the railways are making gradual improvements. In Shanghai, they added extra, special counters for Spring Festival travel. There are online updates on ticket availability and rewards offered to those who turn in ticket scalpers.
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