China’s latest-generation of HSR (High Speed Rail) trains.
High speed rail (HSR) lines first zoomed onto the scene in Japan in 1964. It took a while for other countries to join the HSR club, but there now are no fewer than 18 countries offering passenger service at speeds in excess of 160 kilometers per hour (km/h) (99 mph), and some, including the latest addition to China’s range of offerings, have the potential for speeds as high as 300 km/h (186 mph).
China, with 16,308 km (10,133 miles) of HSR service, presently accounts for 60% of the world’s total super-fast train offerings. The latest – the 308 km (191 miles) cited in its total – was added last week. The new line began service on Saturday, Dec. 26. It connects Chengdu (home of pandas and capital of Sichaun Province) and Chongqing, both in southwest China, the Xinhau News agency has reported.
The news service said in September, when announcing the start of testing on the new line, that it will initially cut the travel time between the two cities from two hours to one-and-a-half hours. (The implication was that the potential full speed won’t be employed just yet, so the travel time between the cities could eventually be trimmed even more. Further evidence of that is the fact that the travel time cut is, at the start, only ½ hour, on a line where speeds of 300 km/h are possible over most if not all of a distance of 312.6 km [194 miles]. The air km/miles distance, at 268.6 km / 166.9 miles, is considerably less, indicating the rail route is hardly a straight line.)
An article on the blog-web site chengduliving.com, says the Chengdu-Chongqing trip took as long as 12 hours as recently as 2005 – before the initial (2-hour) bullet train was introduced. The article’s author, identified only as Charlie, after noting “the entirety of the trip is as fast and smooth as you’d expect a bullet train to be,” adds that, “seats are large and comfortable and in each there’s a readout which displays current speed and indoor/outdoor temperature.”
The Chengdu-Chongqing line “is part of a major east-west high-speed rail corridor project included in China’s national high-speed railway development plan,” the September report noted.
Given that China’s population is substantially larger than that of other countries with bullet train, or HSR, services, it may be no exaggeration that when attempting to buy bullet train tickets at Chengdu’s North Train Station, where these trains depart and arrtive, on busy weekends “you can see a queue of hundreds or even thousands playing games on their cell phones (or just yelling into them),” as Charlie put it.
Fortunately, China – Chengdu, at any rate – offers a convenient alternative, in the form of “dozens” of train ticket offices scattered around the city. Each offers “a computer readout of all the tickets available, making [your] choice easy,” Charlie said.
Other countries offering HSR/bullet train service include Austria, Belgium France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, the U.K., the U.S. and Uzbekistan, according to Wikipedia. (The latter’s Tashkent-Samarkand HSR line is 344 km  miles long, connecting the two largest Uzbek cities, the Wiki web site says.)
A separate Wikipedia entry notes that China has a total of 16,755 km (10,424 mi) of HSR lines planned or under construction. The same article declares that the world’s longest HSR line is the 2,298 km (1,428 mi) link for the Chinese cities of Beijing and Guangzhou. A 36 km (22) mi) cross-border extension, will take the line into Hong Kong’s new West Kowloon Terminus (now under construction) by way of a dedicated tunnel connecting Hong Kong with mainland China. That extension is scheduled to open in 2017.
(Personal note: I’ve enjoyed one amazing HSR trip, from London’s Victoria Station to Paris’s Gare du Nord. [London departures now are from a sparkling new St. Pancras station (pictured below),
build to mimic Victorian-era station styles – which were large and very high-ceilinged because smoke from the coming-and-going coal-fueled engines would have been, in a lower-ceilinged structure, suffocating.]
(Now part of the Eurostar-branded system, which connects London with a spectrum of destinations on the European continent, the HSR train I rode through the then-new ‘chunnel’ – tunnel beneath the English Channel – was completed in 1994, at a cost of more than $21 billion.
(Having crossed from England to France [and vice versa] via relatively fast and somewhat slower air routes and a significantly slower rail-to-ship-to-rail that consumes half a day or more – even the by-air trips were long, because of journey times to and from airports at both ends – being able to travel from central London to the center of Paris in 2.5 hours was nothing short of a miracle. It would have been more so if, when we arrived in Paris, street sweeper types hadn’t been on strike, resulting in a Gare du Nord littered almost ankle-deep, it seemed, with trash that ordinarily would be regularly swept up in any of Paris’s six major train stations.)
HSR lines are incredibly costly, because curves must be ‘softened’, and continuously-welded rail is a must. And the trains that run on those lines need to be engineered (no pun intended) for air-pressure sensitivity (because of the high speed), a way-better-than-‘traditional’ concern than designers of earlier trains seldom considered.
But their economic worth is huge: Halving the time of a trip is immensely important to businesses and for tourism, which tends to rise sharply as ‘getting there’ gets faster. Resulting efficiencies, and resulting higher profits, in the long run, pay off for government sponsors of HSR in the form of increased tax revenue.
And at the end of the day – public service be damned – that, the revenue factor, is the driving force in many municipal, state and national actions in support of infrastructure. (The latter is Rachel Maddow’s favorite word – with good reason: When it’s supported, good things happen. When it isn’t, a raft of problems are right around the corner.)