High-Speed Trains Are Making China Smaller

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.

In many ways, China's rail revolution is comparable to the building and opening of America's transcontinental railway in the 19th century or, more recently, to the opening of the U.S. interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s. In their own ways, each of those infrastructure projects opened up the United States for development, exploration, and trade. By making travel available to ever-larger numbers of people, they changed not only distances, but individuals' perceptions of their own limitations, shifting "people's mental maps of the land mass in which they lived," says Colin Divall, a professor of railway history at University of York in the U.K.

The advent of high-speed trains is likely to have even greater implications for China, given its larger territory, population, and history of regional unrest. By improving connections, they may help spread economic development more evenly around the country, helping Beijing to bind the nation together and strengthen its hold over the provinces, and decreasing the likelihood that China's internal divisions might one day lead it to fragmenting into "warring states," as some worst-case forecasts have predicted. In particular, the leadership hopes that its call for the nation's talents and industry to "go west" to China's poorer provinces may become easier once western regions become less remote, thanks to rail. Thus the gaps in wealth, status—even dialect—that now divide countryside and city, the more urbanized east and the mostly rural west may be narrowed, advancing Beijing's vision of a more "harmonious society."

Bullet trains are already expanding the definition of a day trip and could help transform isolated backwaters like the inland city of Xian into booming heartland hubs. With traffic already clogging China's expanding network of highways, bullet trains could ease the snarls while opening up travel to the millions of Chinese still unable to afford a car, or a plane ticket. In general, high-speed rail is likely to be just as fast as air travel, at half the price. By shrinking people's sense of the scale of the nation, fast trains may also help stimulate the creativity and new thinking that China needs for the next stage of its economic development. Xie Weida, a professor at the Institute of Railways and Urban Mass Transport at Shanghai's Tongji University, argues that "transport will have a big impact on every aspect of the entire life of our society," stimulating development "not just in the field of economics, but in politics and culture too."

Already, government investment has created something of an economic miniboom. At the railway station in Suzhou—the old Yangtze delta city north of Shanghai famous for its canals and ornamental gardens—teams of construction workers now spend their days suspended precariously from a latticework of girders high above the track. Soon, a brand-new glass-and-steel terminal will rise here, and the crumbling old 1950s station, with its few platforms, will be consigned to history. Guangzhou, Shanghai, and other cities are following suit, building shiny new stations to service the fast new trains. Authorities are so confident about the market that they've invested tens of millions of dollars in localizing production of bullet trains, with 85 percent of the parts for trains in the new Beijing-Shanghai line expected to be manufactured domestically.

Far bigger economic effects are down the line. The train tracks are helping to spur consumer spending, with Beijing residents traveling as far as 120 kilometers to shop in places like Tianjin, where prices are lower. The $8.50 one-way trip takes less than 30 minutes, attracting many middle-class passengers who see the bus—which takes three times as long—as a nonstarter. Beijing's campaign to promote development across regions—like the Yangtse River Delta around Shanghai, or the Pearl River Delta from Guangzhou to Hong Kong—gets a huge boost from the fact that it will soon be possible to traverse these regions in minutes. High-speed rail will cut the trip from Shanghai to Nanjing from what was originally four hours to just 75 minutes. The city of Wenzhou in southeastern Zhejiang—home to many of China's biggest private enterprises, including fashion brands like Meters Bonwe and shoemakers like Aokang—has long been hindered by its relative isolation in a mountainous coastal area. This month it opened high-speed rail tracks connecting it for the first time to Ningbo, a major port, and to the neighboring province of Fujian, an important hub for Taiwanese investment. The link, which will ultimately extend south to Hong Kong, is expected to further stimulate Wenzhou's legendary entrepreneurial spirit, which has seen it move rapidly from small family workshops to major textile and electronics manufacturing, as well as becoming the source of much of the real-estate investment around China.

The high-speed lines will also help eliminate trade bottlenecks by freeing up space on existing tracks. Paul French, head of the Shanghai retail and logistics consultancy Access Asia, says many foreign businesses are frustrated by the lack of space for transporting goods on China's railways, with freight trains monopolized by shipments of coal and grain. "There's too much investment in passenger rail now and not enough in cargo," he says, noting that this forces companies to add to the number of "overloaded trucks plowing along China's death expressways." But the investment in passenger tracks will allow the old lines to be used for cargo, aiding the Chinese economy by allowing for a more efficient freight-train network. Xie says the government also plans to bolster freight rail with a $40 billion investment on new rolling stock by the end of 2010.

That could put Beijing's policy of opening up the west in high gear. Introduced in 2000 with the aim of binding some of China's poorer western regions to the economic growth of the east coast, thus reducing dangerous social and economic imbalances, the initiative has been hampered by slow and expensive transport connections and the unwillingness of qualified talent to work in remote western regions. The fast-train links may help reduce all of these problems. The ancient capital of Xian has struggled to attract cutting-edge industries to its isolated location, 1,200 kilometers and 10 hours by train from Beijing, but soon that ride will fall to just four hours.

China's effort to develop medium-size cities across the country, in order to reduce the pressure of massive internal migration on big coastal cities, will also get a boost. The fast-rail links include rapidly expanding light-rail connections around major cities, encouraging moves from central cities to smaller satellite towns, or even commutes from one city to another. Retired people seeking a better environment are beginning to do the same.

Still, there is also the possibility that the unifying aim of the high-speed-rail project could create unexpected challenges for Beijing. Some of the fast-train routes are so popular that many passengers can be forced to stand throughout their journey. Outrage over this has led some media outlets to demand that the state-controlled railway system be opened to competition. "Only when monopoly is replaced by free competition," said an article in the Chengdu Business Daily, "can we expect real quality train services." What's more, improvements in mobility could begin to undermine the Chinese government's highly restrictive residency regulations, which even today tie people's right to welfare, health care, and education to the place where they were born or have worked during their adult life. Now, according to Mingzheng Shi, head of New York University's teaching center in Shanghai and a specialist in China's urban development, more and more people are moving across old administrative boundaries. "Their concepts of cities and distance are changing," he says. "People from Shanghai see no problem now in living in cities in southern Jiangsu province, where apartments are cheaper, and then taking the fast train to Shanghai in 20 to 40 minutes." Large numbers of urban residents moving away from the cities where their welfare entitlements have traditionally been located may prove too much for the household registration system, and could lead to its "eventual complete collapse," says Shi, removing a vital plank of the state's traditional mechanism of social control.

Over the longer term, easier travel could be the driving force behind a new understanding of what China can one day become. Chinese officials have long argued that the nation's vast area and population make it too unwieldy to be suited to multiparty democracy—and this idea has been deeply lodged in the Chinese psyche for generations. This may have been unsurprising in a country where a couple of decades ago it would often take half a day to get to the next town, and where it could easily take four hours to make a phone call from one city to another. Yet once people begin to sense that their country is getting smaller, those obstacles are likely to seem smaller, too. In fact, the effect of the high-speed trains could be that they do bring China together—just not in the way Beijing might have planned.