China’s Bullet Trains Separate the Rich from the Poor

China is eager to develop its high-speed rail system and is projected to spend $300 billion by the time these projects finish in 2020. From CNN.com:

Creating a rail system in a country of 1.3 billion people guarantees that the scale will be gargantuan. Almost 16,000 miles of new track will have been laid when the build-out is done in 2020. China will consume about 117 million tons of concrete just to construct the buttresses on which the tracks will be carried. The total amount of rolled steel on the Beijing-to-Shanghai line alone would be enough to construct 120 copies of the “Bird’s Nest” — the iconic Olympic stadium in Beijing. The top speed on trains that will run from Beijing to Shanghai will approach 220 miles an hour. Last year passengers in China made 1.4 billion rail journeys, and Chinese railroad officials expect that in a nation whose major cities are already choked with traffic, the figure could easily double over the next decade.

Construction on the vast multibillion-dollar project commenced in 2005 and will run through 2020. This year China will invest $50 billion in its new high-speed passenger rail system, more than double the amount spent in 2008. By the time the project is completed, Beijing will have pumped $300 billion into it. This effort is of more than passing historical interest. It can be seen properly as part and parcel of China’s economic rise as a developing nation modernizing at warp speed, catching up with the rich world and in some instances — like — leapfrogging it entirely.

Most observers  see the bullet trains as a symbol of China’s modernization and economic rise. However, Tom Lasseter believes the bullet trains represent the widespread income inequality in China. From the Miami Herald:

The nation’s economic gap is obvious at places like the Zhengzhou train station, where a small sea of migrant laborers spreads out across a concrete square, plopped down on seed bags stuffed with blankets and clothes.

Bullet train passengers, meanwhile, sit in a waiting hall with laptops open and plenty of space. Their accommodations are about to get much nicer – a new Zhengzhou station for high-speed rail is slated to open by the end of the year, at a cost of more than $1 billion.

Chang Baoning’s bullet train trip from Zhengzhou to the city of Xi’an will take about two hours – so quick that last year, after the train service was initiated, airlines suspended their flights between the cities.

On the green train, covering the same distance would take six or seven hours.

But the bullet train’s cost – a first-class ticket is 390 yuan each way, or about $60 – is unreachable for many. A one-way seat on the green train is 36 yuan, or $5.50.

For Cao Tianjing, there’s no point in making the comparison.

“We are just workers; we have no idea about the prices of the fast trains,” said Cao, who was passing through on his way to work at a stone masonry.

Far from the bullet trains’ TV screens, snack boxes and perky attendants, Wang shifted on a hard seat, trying to avoid tangling his legs with the men sitting in front of him. People got up to pour hot water into cups of instant noodles, and then complained to conductor Zhang that the car had already run out.

Across the aisle, Li Changlong, 58, sat next to his wife and stared at an empty can of Tsingtao beer. A reporter asked him what he thought about the country’s high-speed trains. Li gave a blank look and said, “I’ve never heard about them.”

The government is now trying to lower high speed rail ticket prices. The Chinese government has recently announced that  high speed rails will decrease their speeds  so as to alleviate both concerns about traveling at such fast speeds  as well as bring ticket prices down. From Wall Street Journal:

China will begin forcing its growing fleet of high-speed trains to operate at slower speeds, the country’s railways chief said in an interview with state-run media, in the latest sign of trouble for the country’s most vaunted transportation project.

Sheng Guangzu, head of China’s Ministry of Railways, said in an interview with the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper published Wednesday that the decision will make tickets more affordable and improve energy efficiency on the country’s high-speed railways.

Mr. Sheng, who took over the Ministry of Railways in February after his predecessor resigned amid a corruption investigation, said trains in China needed to serve all parts of society.

“China is vast and there are regional differences in economic and social development, so railway construction norms can’t be uniform,” Mr. Sheng said in the interview. He didn’t specify how much ticket prices might be reduced.

In the interview, Mr. Sheng said high-speed trains will begin operating at a maximum 300 kilometers an hour from July 1, compared with previous speeds of around 350 kilometers an hour. Many of the country’s intercity trains will operate at speeds between 200 and 250 kilometers an hour.

Improving energy efficiency in high-speed trains is one reason for the change, Mr. Sheng said. Trains operating at 350 kilometers an hour require twice as much energy as those operating at 200 kilometers an hour, he said.

Sun Zhang, an expert from Tongji University’s Institute of Railway and Urban Rail Transit, said the disclosure signaled the government was beginning to listen to the demands of rail users. He said recent media reports about the high price of high-speed rail forced the ministry to re-examine the issue.

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