For decades, rail travel in China meant an arduous overnighter in a crowded East German–designed train, riding along a rickety old track. Now China is undergoing a rail revolution. Over the next three years, the government will pour some $300 billion into its railways, expanding its network by 20,000 kilometers, including 13,000 kilometers of track designed for high-speed trains capable of traveling up to 350kph. Result: China, a nation long defined by the vastness of its geography, is getting, much, much smaller.
Already, the journey from Beijing to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province, has been slashed from eight hours to three. Shortly before the Olympics last year, the 120km trip from Beijing to Tianjin was cut from almost an hour to just 27 minutes. In the next few years, a train journey from Wuhan to Guangzhou, halfway across the country, will shrink from 10 to three hours. The trip from Shanghai to Beijing, which currently clocks in at 10 grueling hours—and twice that, not so long ago—will be cut to just four, making train travel between China’s two most important cities a viable competitor to air for the first time. Similarly, a trip from the capital to the southern manufacturing powerhouse of Guangzhou—more or less the entire length of the nation—will take just eight hours, compared with 20 before and more than a day and a half by bus.