Global Observer

With new bullet-train line, China on track with big infrastructure goals

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HONG KONG -- Last week, China unveiled the longest high-speed rail line in the world, but a big crash in 2011 has many wondering if the country is developing its network too quickly.

HONG KONG -- China unveiled last week the longest high-speed railway line in the world, as part of the country’s plan to rapidly develop its rail infrastructure.

But since a deadly train crash on another railway in 2011, concerns about safety have been raised, and critics question whether in the case of China’s infrastructure, it is just too much too soon.

The new train line runs between Beijing and Guangzhou, a city in southern China not far from Hong Kong. The trip, covering about 1,200 miles at 186 miles per hour, takes only eight hours.

It is the latest in China’s aggressive construction of rail lines across the country. The plan for rail infrastructure for the period from 2011 to 2015 is to put $365 billion into construction, which would extend the network by 75,000 miles.

And passengers who have taken the new high-speed trains have raved about their smooth and fast journeys.

“It was impressive. It felt world-class, actually, in the design and operations,” said passenger Marcus Leung-Shea, of another newly opened high-speed train that he took from Beijing to Qingdao in eastern China during a business trip. He said he is in awe that the new train can get from Beijing to Guangzhou in such short time.

But worries about the safety of such rapid development spiked after a July 2011 crash between two high-speed trains in Wenzhou, in southeastern China, left 40 people dead. The tragedy raised questions of whether the rail system was being built too hastily, at the expense of safety.

Additionally, Chinese state-run media have reported that the demand for some routes is so low that empty trains are a common sight. Indeed, the massive construction goals, considered an economic stimulus, have put the transportation ministry into debt reaching hundreds of billions of dollars.

Some experts argue that the pace of development should not involve more risk; a train system’s safety should be the same regardless of how fast construction happens or how high demand is.

“Whether you build in terms of ten years or two years, it is not really a tradeoff. In a lot of situations, it’s actually whether you are willing to pay a higher price in a shorter time to meet the same safety standards,” said Becky Loo, a geography professor at the University of Hong Kong.

So it does not help that in China, it is hardly ever clear what happens behind the scenes of, well, just about anything. It also did not sit well that a few months before the deadly Wenzhou collision, China’s railway minister was removed after facing accusations of corruption in awarding contracts to build high-speed railways.

Karen Hsieh, who lives in Hong Kong and travels to Beijing periodically for work, said, out of habit, she would probably continue flying between the two cities, which takes about three hours. But safety issues are in the back of her mind. “Maybe I will let the train run a few months more before I take it,” she said.

Photo: Flickr/Steve Langguth

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure