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Such a short journey

FAST LANE - By 2012, China will have 42 high-speed rail lines before India begins to build its first. But many of the 210-million Chinese returning home for the lunar New Year holiday will be unable to afford the new bullet trains, reports Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Feb 13, 2010 23:16 IST
Reshma Patil

For years, Peking university student Jiangping Bo considered a 1950s railroad bridge over the Yangtze and a monument called the Yellow Crane Tower as the highlight of his hometown in central Wuhan. But that was until December 2009, when the world’s fastest long-distance train hit home.

Almost 210 million Chinese are surging home for the world’s biggest annual migration for the Chinese lunar New Year holiday that starts Sunday. Many of the teeming millions only grabbed a spot to stand through train journeys lasting three to four days.

But the new WuGuang, short for Wuhan to Guangzhou, hurls over 600 bridges and through over 200 tunnels to cover 1,068 km in three hours instead of 10.5 hours. The tracks, bridges and tunnels are built to withstand the train’s maximum speed of 394 kmph and an average cruise of 312 kmph.

In Wuhan, Jiangping hasn’t ridden the new train to the southern export capital of Guangzhou, but he’s excited. “I can’t afford a ticket, but I hope the train will create more jobs in my city,’’ he said.

India doesn’t plan to build high-speed rail lines before 2012. By that year, China plans to link most of its mega cities with 42 high-speed rail lines across 13,000 km.

The Chinese 2013 target includes 800 new bullet trains.

The first Chinese bullet train was launched from Beijing to Tianjin in 2008 and it glides past the top speed of India’s Rajdhani and Shatabdi within the first five minutes of the 30-minute journey.

The Chinese railroad is making modern history since November 2008 when the global recession forced Beijing to pump record millions of government funds into building railways, creating demand for steel and concrete and millions of construction jobs. The construction of high-speed tracks spreading up to Xinjiang in the mountainous northwest bordering parts of India, and to Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the south, has brought the world’s railway industry to China.

“By 2013, China will have more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined,’’ Keith Dierkx, Director of IBM’s new Global Rail Innovation Centre, told the Hindustan Times in Beijing. “China’s also committed to building the world’s safest and reliable railroad.’’

Dierkx wouldn’t hazard an opinion whether the mass demolitions straight across thousands of km would ever work in India, where the network is smaller but denser than China’s.

But he emphasised that India and China face similar transportation challenges and need systems that can handle train safety and maintenance on a mass scale. “There are going to be lots of scale issues in China that will have lessons for the world,” he said, explaining why IBM chose to locate this centre in Beijing.

Dierkx came to China’s Silicon Valley in June 2009 to work among neighbours like Google. Inside three grey buildings including a room with teddy bears, he leads Chinese software techies to design solutions like cameras that will be smarter than the policemen patrolling railway stations in India and China. The machines will analyse vision to alert security to anything that looks out of place.

China represents the largest growth market with the most advanced technologies in the railway industry, said Hans-Joerg Grundmann, CEO of Siemens Mobility, over email from Germany. “The long-distance high-speed lines pose engineering challenges as they pass through areas with swamps, sands, hills and desserts,’’ he said.

In January, a month after the WuGuang launched, the first high-speed railway in western China began 352 kmph trial runs from the home of the ancient Terracota warriors in Xian to Zhengzhou, cutting distance from six hours to under two.

Also last month, an official at Tangshan Railway that makes China’s bullet trains said that the company was doubling production capacity in the first half of this year, to make eight bullet trains per month.

A magnetic levitation or maglev line is being built in Beijing despite the low popularity and high cost of operating Shanghai’s airport shuttle that averages 250 kmph but can hit 430 kmph top speed. Trials will also be completed this year for a 380 kmph Beijing-Shanghai bullet train link to slice the overnight journey into five hours.

The big question is whether the bullet trains, built with variations of French, German and Japanese technology, will be affordable for the masses.

The WuGuang’s tickets cost 780 yuan (Rs 5,460) for first-class and 490 yuan (Rs 3,430) for second-class. This week, about 100,000 migrants in southern Guangzhou rode motorcycles home to avoid costly train tickets.

Guangzhou-based exporter Govind Vidhani hasn’t tried the WuGuang that will ultimately reach Beijing. “The bullet trains will be good for locals and tourists but businessmen will prefer flights instead of the high cost and longer train journeys,’’ Vidhani said.

At Siemens Mobility, Grundmann is watchful of India’s market though India is expected to add only 2,000 km of new railroad by 2012.

“We consider India an important future market because the Vision 2020 of the Ministry of Railways envisages four high-speed rail projects at 250-350 kmph,’’ he said. By 2020, the Chinese railroad may have reached Pakistan.