08.08.08 — I bought a second-class ticket out of the capital. HT’s daily dispatch for the Beijing Olympics began aboard China’s latest and the world’s fastest intercity bullet train that will shuttle football fans between inland Beijing and coastal Tianjin at a record 350 kmph in 30 minutes. By 2013, a high-speed railway will cut train travel between Beijing-Shanghai from 10 hours to five.
I skipped the media test ride, to line up as a common commuter between inland Beijing and China’s third-largest city and its busiest northern seaport about 135 km away. The Made-in-China bullet trains cut the commute from a previous 70 minutes at 200-250 kmph to 30 minutes. The new commute combines Beijing and Tianjin into one city, Chinese researcher Zhou Gansi told China Central Television. “It can dramatically change people’s way of life.”
The local from Mumbai’s southern financial hub to its northern suburbs takes twice as long. Imagine the potential of a Delhi-Chandigarh or Mumbai-Pune train giving professionals the choice of a comfortable daily intercity commute instead of migration. The fastest Mumbai-Pune train takes three hours to cover 192 km.The seven-year infrastructure revolution inside India’s largest and most powerful neighbour goes beyond its 37 Olympic stadiums.
My journey began at Asia’s largest railway station (by one estimate, the size of 20 football fields) that opened in south Beijing last week with none of the fanfare that would accompany such an event if it happened in India.
After all, Beijing opened the world’s biggest international airport terminal this year, to welcome over 10,000 athletes and modern China’s biggest-ever influx of foreigners (about half a million) from August 8-24.
The solar panel-roofed station looks like an international airport, and is bigger than the 91,000-seat Bird’s Nest stadium that will host the opening ceremony. As commuters bought instant noodles they prepared with hot water from the station taps, I was the only Indian in the crowd, struggling to decipher Chinese signs.
First-class tickets at 69 yuan each (Rs 426 approx.) were sold out for day one. I bought a second-class ticket 58 yuan (Rs 358 approx.) and found that the reclining blue seats, footrests and wide shatterproof windows with blinds made the journey more comfortable than flying economy.
Fifteen minutes before my train departed, I queued behind excited Chinese commuters to enter one of the 24 platforms. The sleek white Harmony stood waiting, with attendants in black and purple uniforms who smiled more than the airhostesses aboard Air China.
I sank into the seat and found an English brochure for passenger guidance that said ‘the disabled military stuff can purchase half price ticket’.
A Chinese and English commentary welcomed the 600 passengers, and attendants walked the wide corridor between cabins divided by automatic glass doors to distribute water bottled in Tibet.
I nervously noticed the disposable bag for train sickness, but never needed it. Within three minutes, the train touched 196 kmph. Then it crossed 280 kmph in five minutes, sweeping past factories and highways.
Twelve minutes into the journey, we hurtled ahead without a lurch at 346 kmph. On a test run, the train has peaked at 394 kmph.
As we rolled into Tianjin station, my feet did not wobble. Commuters posed by the train, but I searched for a coffee shop. There was no bench, not even a toilet as the station is still not fully ready.
So I hopped into an empty Harmony by the platform — though my return ticket was for a later train — and pleaded for a quick coffee with milk. While the attendant poured it I checked the airplane-style loo, but a policeman banged on the door and I left the train superfast. Coffee in hand.