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China’s High-Speed Trains: Too Fast, Too Furious

Aug 01, 2011

(This commentary first appeared on March 28, 2011.)

This year China endured its grueling 40-day annual chunyun — the epic “spring movement” of an estimated 120 million people traveling long distances home and back during the Lunar New Year interlude. This took place right after China entered its glittering bullet-train age last year.  As in the past twenty years, most of the passengers were migrant workers making their once-a-year trip to reunite with their families in the home village. The annual logistical challenge of moving such a huge population in a short time, as shown in the scramble for a ticket and the chaos and extreme overcrowding in rundown rail cars, is well captured in Lixin Fan’s acclaimed documentary, Last Train Home, with its sumptuous visuals.

One might have expected this year’s chunyun to be less torturous for migrant passengers than in years past with the addition of numerous new high-speed rail lines. As it turned out, this year’s spectacle was no less chaotic than in the past. One Chinese reporter even calls it the hardest in history.

China’s state-owned and run bullet-train system, constructed at a record speed (and at a record cost of about 2 trillion yuan so far), have won almost universal praise. Today it has 8,358 km of high-speed rail in operation compared to zero three years ago. Obama’s State of the Union speech alluded to its speediness in an admiring tone. I also happened to ride a Chinese bullet train last year and loved it: just like those I had taken elsewhere, I found it clean, comfortable and, of course, super fast. These state-of-the-art bullet trains have become an icon of China’s great leap forward to superpower status in the 21st century.
Behind the glamour, however, some skeptics were worried that this multi-trillion yuan project is a fertile ground for corruption. The concern has turned out to be well founded: the Minister of Railways is currently at the center of an investigation for corruption. And his delinquencies, as reported widely in the Chinese press, are familiar ones: he is charged with kickbacks, fraud, tendering big contracts to companies run by cronies, and engaging in affairs with numerous young mistresses, some of whom helped cut those deals.
Even more worrying to the public is that beneath the newly-laid tracks, there are potentially serious safety risks, as some foundations were put down hastily.
These recent shocking revelations now seem to have turned this once flashy icon of progress into the poster-child of China’s latest infrastructure express rife with graft and run amok with little oversight and accountability. More important, this “development” also represents a significant redistribution of public resources from the poor to the rich.  Indeed, it means less efficient and more inequitable public transportation system, with increased safety risks.
Chunyun 2011 is a telling example. Though the new high-speed trains had added notable rail capacity, ironically the migrant masses found it harder to get train tickets home. Many conventional trains were taken off the rails to make room for the fast ones, but their tickets were too expensive to most migrant travelers. This created a holiday crunch even worse than usual for seats on the regular trains. As a result, hordes of low-income travelers were pushed back onto cramped buses or forced to try something extraordinary to get home.
Press reports of several chunyun transportation dramas have caught public attention in the last month. They tell the struggle of the have-nots being left behind in the new bullet-train age.
After queuing for a train ticket home, and being third in the line for 14 hours without success, a migrant in Zhejiang unveiled his underpants in public to protest. In the south, a migrant couple did not even attempt to get a train ticket. Instead, loaded with luggage and their 6-year-old son, they rode a motorbike for eleven hours, braving numbing wintry weather for 320 km. Many more did the same despite the icy weather, and soon there were swarms of motorbikes on many highways, with police escorts helping in some instances.  In an even more extreme case, after failing to get a regular train or bus ticket, eleven young migrants decided to implement Plan C and jogged 130 km home together across frigid North China.
The seat shortage prompted China’s railway authorities to crack down on rampant scalping, demanding that train tickets sold at some major hubs be issued with real names and matched with IDs when checking in. Indeed, 1,800 scalpers were caught in the first week of the chunyun. Moreover, in an unprecedented demonstration of transparency, the rail authorities opened their ticket offices across the nation to 1,000 outside “inspectors” to monitor ticket sales and operations, and also threatened stiff sanctions on any rail employees involved in back-door ticket-trading.
At the same time, some high-speed trains were leaving stations only half full, even in the peak holiday season.
Three lawyers in remote Xinjiang pleaded openly for the rail authorities to offer discounted high-speed train tickets for migrant laborers to help fill up the empty seats. The lawyers also pointed out that these trains are public investments and should be made affordable to the commoner.
The new trains may serve well for China’s middle class as they provide more comfortable rides than flying at similar prices. However, the size of this consuming class is no larger than 300 million (not 800 million, as the Asian Development Bank has claimed) and even this population’s average income is only about one third of its counterpart in Japan or the US. Mostly on business, China’s high-speed train passengers are not numerous enough to financially sustain this vast — the world’s largest — system of expensive bullet trains. The remaining one-billion-plus low-income masses, especially those badly wanting to make that annual trip to see their families, however, cannot afford the new trains and are left behind to scramble for the ever fewer slow ones.
With the disgraced rail minister’s career now heading to a train wreck, the planned high speed of building another 8,000 km bullet-train lines and spending another 3.5 trillion yuan in the coming five years of the 12th Five-year Plan should be seriously called into question. Slowing down the high-speed train project will also help cool down China’s destabilizing inflation. 
It is high time that China’s high-speed trains put on the brakes — based on grounds of efficiency, equity and financial viability!

Kam Wing Chan is a professor in geography at the University of Washington. His research focuses on China’s migration labor and urbanization.

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