Simon Winchester: How Fast Can China Go?

In Vanity Fair, Simon Winchester rides the high-speed rail in China and marvels at how far the country has come, despite the safety issues and corruption in the transportation industry:

I think I had probably never seen in my lifetime so clean and shining a wall of titanium white—an arrow-straight tube of brilliantly just-polished carriages, with a long swoosh of tinted glass, and a jet streak of vivid blue beneath, extended both ways along the platform as far as the eye could see. Outside each open pneumatic door stood a young uniformed woman, hands clasped before her, smiling broadly, confidently. This is railway majesty, the women seemed to say in unison. This is where China is going—welcome aboard!

I walked to the end of the platform and up to the quietly humming electric locomotive, around which crowded scores of awestruck passengers wanting to be pictured standing beside its long, anteater-like silver-gray snout. I was relieved to see it was indeed the locomotive that had been promised by the line’s early planners—the needle-nosed, space-rocket-look-alike, almost science-fictional CRH380A, designed in China (after engineers had bought and operated and shamelessly copied from other high-speed trains from Japan and France, and most notably from the Siemens company in Germany) and built in a factory in eastern China, in the same province where Confucius had been born.

Half a dozen of these beasts were lined up beside one another, raring to go, like greyhounds at the starting gate waiting for the rabbit. One snubbier-nosed CRH3C engine was huddled between the others—German-engineered, slower, but (as one English-speaking man on the platform remarked to me, boastfully) still faster than anything known in America today.

The new, aardvark-nosed 380As were the pride of the fleet, designed and ordered at a stupendous rate: a prototype was built in late 2008, there were test runs in 2009, the delivery of the first took place in 2010, and then, at a cost of $6.64 billion, 140 of the train sets (a hundred with 16 cars, like ours, and 40 with just 8 cars, for shorter-haul expresses) were ordered and pressed into immediate service during the 12 months following. It felt as though our train were still warm from the makers’ welding torches.

The fantastic sums of money assigned, the astonishing speed of manufacturing, the sudden arrival of these behemoths, the trains now so firmly annealed into the canon of popular Chinese culture—to Westerners, who have to endure regulatory tedium and budget delays, what is happening in China simply beggars belief.


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