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A high-speed train trip back into history

By Tom Clifford (China Daily)

09:25, March 06, 2012

Sisters-in-law are coming out for a visit. The usual "must-do" suspects, the Great Wall, Tian'anmen Square, hutong, have been ticked off. What else, I asked them tentatively in an e-mail. In a country soaked in history, it was a modern-day wonder they wanted to experience: The Beijing-Shanghai train.

I could see their point. In December I had taken my first high-speed journey, not to shiny Shanghai but to harsh Harbin, more than 1,000 km north of Beijing.

Harsh? It was minus 15 C at Harbin station when I arrived, colder outside as the unforgiving wind gnawed at exposed skin. A nine-hour night journey, in a four-berth cabin.

Why Harbin? A teacher of mine in the Irish city of Limerick in 1969 showed us a map of China. Miss Quinn wanted to share her fascination for the country with her young pupils. Randomly, she pointed to Harbin and said that if any of us visited there, it would show that the world had changed.

It is changing. With 3,500 km of high-speed railways expected to be put into use this year, domestic high-speed rail will exceed 10,000 km. This is more than the rest of the world combined. There will be four major arteries. One of them, the Beijing-Shanghai line, opened in June. The others will connect Beijing and Guangzhou, Beijing and Harbin, and cities on the southeast coast with high-speed railways.

The arteries will significantly cut travel time between major urban areas.

Train travel from Beijing to Shenzhen will take eight hours instead of the current 24 and trips from Beijing to Harbin will take only five hours instead of nine.

The scale of the high-speed project is far grander, both in engineering terms and social connectivity, than it has been given credit for internationally. Potentially hundreds of millions of people will benefit as it expands.

And this goes beyond borders. China is also planning a high-speed link with its neighbors and a regional network seems to be evolving.

But there have been bleak days. In July a crash claimed 40 lives and the issue of safety was raised.

Purchasing tickets can be time-consuming, either online or at a station. The main stations are functional but the services they provide belong to an era when words like "Net" and "Web" meant something completely different to what they mean today.

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