Sold-Out Beijing Trains Show Riders Unfazed
Hao Jian Jun anticipated getting a cheap seat on a bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai at the last minute. Instead, he waited four hours to board and paid triple the price he expected because the line is so popular.
A month after a crash on China’s showcase network killed 40 people, Hao and other passengers said they believed bullet trains were safer, cheaper and more convenient than planes. Congestion suggests the 221 billion-yuan ($35 billion) line between the nation’s wealthiest cities may meet an initial goal of carrying about 70 million passengers a year.
“The high-speed rail is such a breakthrough,” Hao, 43, said as his train whizzed through the Shandong province countryside at about 300 kilometers per hour (186 miles per hour). “It’s reduced travel times so much. Accidents are bound to happen eventually, but you can’t let one incident overshadow everything else.”
The July 23 crash near Wenzhou in the southeast occurred when a high-speed train that stopped after a lightning strike was rear-ended by a second locomotive. The collision injured about 190 people and pushed four carriages off elevated tracks.
The accident was likely caused by a design flaw in a signaling system, state-run Xinhua News Agency said July 28. Premier Wen Jiabao said those found directly responsible for the collision will be punished.
The first-ever crash on China’s high-speed system prompted authorities to cut the number of trips between Beijing and Shanghai, slow top speeds to 300 kph from 350 kph, order safety checks and remove at least three local railway officials.
China CNR Corp., the nation’s second-biggest trainmaker, subsequently recalled 54 high-speed locomotives because of issues related to sensors, the company said this week.
None of that mattered to Dong Hua, a sales executive from Zhejiang waiting in a ticket line at Beijing South station. The eight counters selling high-speed train tickets had lines of 20- 30 people each.
Dong has taken the bullet train to Shanghai at least four times since services started June 30 and said he prefers it over planes.
Flights require early arrivals at airports that are about an hour’s trip outside Beijing and Shanghai’s city centers, so it takes Dong as much time to fly as it does to ride a cheaper bullet train that drops him off downtown, he said.
‘Safer Than Airplane’
“The train is still much safer than an airplane,” Dong, 28, said. “You hear of airplane accidents all the time. You hardly hear of train crashes.”
Previous trips on the slow-speed train between Beijing and Shanghai took as long as 13 hours, he said. Some high-speed services make the trip in as little as four hours and 48 minutes.
The national high-speed rail network opened in 2007 and is due to reach 16,000 kilometers (9,900 miles) by 2015. The overall rail system is set to reach 120,000 kilometers under a 2.8 trillion-yuan, five-year investment plan running through 2015.
The Beijing-Shanghai line will move about 180,000 passengers a day initially, Vice Rail Minister Hu Yadong said June 13. The Ministry of Railways did not respond to a fax requesting comment on current passenger numbers.
Public ire over the accident is directed more at the government than the technology, Dong said.
“The Wenzhou crash hasn’t changed my view of these trains, but it’s altered my view of the railway ministry,” he said. “It would have been much better if they did the safety checks and inspections before accidents happen, rather than after.”
Yi Hui, 39, stood on the platform before the journey began, trying to convince her 9-year-old son to pose for a photo next to the train. Her family flew to Beijing for a four-day holiday and planned a rail trip back home.
“We wanted our son to experience it,” the Shanghai teacher said. “It should be safer now after the Wenzhou incident, shouldn’t it? They would have stepped up safety checks and put in more precautions.”
As the afternoon train reached peak speed, Jakub Nawrot sat in the dining car and recounted trying to leave Beijing the day before. All the tickets were gone, and the remaining 82 for the next morning’s train sold out while he stood in a 20-meter-long (66-foot-long) line.
The Polish medical student was finishing up a five-week trip through China and wanted to ride the train before leaving. He paid 550 yuan for a second-class ticket, about a third the price of an airline ticket, he said.
Nawrot, 24, was unfazed by the accident, saying he believes Chinese trains are safer than Polish ones and safer than planes in general. He has ridden the trans-Siberian train and said he envied Chinese technology.
“It’s not even modern, it’s futuristic,” he said as the digital speedometer on the wall showed 300 kph. “The shape of the train, the color, the surroundings, it’s like a sci-fi movie.”
In the red seats of business class, passengers ate a complementary meal of rice with spicy chicken wings, vegetables and pork, and watched personal TV sets. Hao worked on his laptop as his neighbor slept on the fully reclining chair.
Hao, who works for a company selling construction and mining equipment, was getting off in Nanjing, the stop before Shanghai. He doesn’t like flying between Beijing and Shanghai because about half of his flights are delayed on the tarmac for about an hour.
Hao remembered when simple trips took as long as 21 hours and carriages were so crowded that people slept on the floor at his feet.
“It’s much more convenient and so much more spacious on the train,” he said. “I take high-speed rail whenever possible.”
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