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Thursday, June 13, 2024

A day return from Beijing to Shanghai please…

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Written by Colin Garratt in Newton Harcourt and Andrew Benton in Beijing

Despite the recent high speed rail disaster in China, the world-wide evidence in favour of high speed rail remains compelling.

Whilst China is currently re-evaluating its approach to high speed rail and investigating alleged instances of corruption and corner cutting in the building of its network of high speed routes, its government still envisages a comprehensive high speed rail network that will be a cornerstone in China’s rise to global pre-eminence.

Whatever safeguards are put in place as a result of the tragedy at Wenzhou and whatever the result of investigations into the conduct of individuals and organisations, China’s prodigious achievements cannot be overlooked.

Its belief in high speed rail and the success of high speed networks around the world should be the stimulus we need to build Britain’s HS2.

Britain was the birthplace of the railway; it was also railway builder to an empire and the world. It is therefore deeply sad to witness the opposition to the building of the line – the natural progression of a long tradition.

Britain’s exporting of railways world-wide took the Industrial Revolution to the four corners of the earth and brought limitless development and prosperity.

At home the success of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway convinced the business people of Birmingham of the advantage of a railway to the capital. George Stephenson’s son Robert was appointed Chief Engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway in 1833.

But the NIMBYs were out in force even then as land owners particularly in the Northampton area voiced their opposition– they didn’t want to see it and they didn’t want to hear it – and it is popularly said that this opposition was a factor in Robert Stephenson engineering the route via Blisworth

Cutting and the infamous 2,400 yard long Kilsby Tunnel, which took three years to build. Northampton remains on a loop line to this day.

It is ironic that the first stage of the proposed HS2 route connects the same two cities as the original London and Birmingham Railway, with a common terminus at Birmingham Curzon Street.

It is also ironic that the new line faces the same opposition as that of one and three quarter centuries ago. But how all consumingly wrong have those NIMBYs of the 1830s proved to be.

Missed opportunity

Britain’s great missed opportunity was the building of the Great Central Railway to continental loading gauge over a hundred years ago which was specifically intended to link the major manufacturing towns of northern England with those of the continent – work on the channel tunnel having been commenced.

The potential was never realised; the tunnel was abandoned and the Great Central main line destined to be closed under Beeching in the 1960s.

A magic carpet

Britain needs high speed rail along with direct services to Europe. It also needs the determination to regenerate its train building capacity.

Historically, if the British were good at anything, it was railways and yet today we cannot even build a train, as the recent Bombardier debacle illustrates. High speed rail was savoured in Britain over a hundred years ago when, in 1904, the Great Western 4-4-0, “City of Truro” reached a 102.3 mph.

High speed rail is the natural development of railway utilisation and France – only 21 miles away from Britain’s shores – has an enviable network of some 1,250 miles of dedicated high speed lines with plans, backed up by current construction, to double that by 2020 – incredible!

France’s TGV revolution began in 1981 – thirty years ago – and neighbouring Germany is following suit.

The country has some 800 miles of high speed track and twenty years after the introduction of ICE the overwhelming verdict is that it has transformed travel and put the German rail network on a par with Japan’s Shinkensen.

It has been said that the journey considered to be most like a modern magic carpet is the Cologne to Frankfurt route which used to take over two hours and which has now been cut to just over an hour.

Taking a car is hardly an alternative as a trip, even on the speed-limit free autobahn, would take twice as long as the train.

In Spain, too, travellers in their droves have forsaken the world’s busiest air shuttle linking Madrid to Barcelona in favour of the high speed AVE which completes the journey, city centre to city centre, in 2 hours 32 minutes with the train reaching speeds up to 210 mph.

The trains are punctual, hassle free and hauled by aerodynamic locomotives that are grounding aircraft across Spain. The American president, Barack Obama, has a keen hankering for the TGV and other fast trains.

After passenger rail in the US reached its lowest point, under George Bush, the country is embarking on an ambitious expansion of passenger rail.

Just how far Britain has fallen behind other countries in the realisation of high speed rail is illustrated by the fact that Japan has had high speed trains since 1964, almost half a century ago and their network of lines has superboosted their economy and society and attracted China, who now leads the world in high speed rail construction.

This railway revolution in China reflects the outlook of this incredible country where China’s central government acts in, what it sees as, the best interests of the nation.

There is no context in which organised opposition can operate. The nation’s forward momentum is breathtaking. Our contributor Andrew Benton has lived and worked in China for eight years and is eminently placed to observe the country’s phenomenal railway development.

The envy of the world

China’s railway system is the envy of the world. Over the past decade development has been phenomenal driven by a burgeoning economy – growth hovers around 10% a year – so creating a more affluent and increasingly mobile population.

Parallel to the country’s high profile building of high speed systems is a wide range of new conventional lines linking the country closer together such as the engineering marvel that is the line to Lhasa in Tibet.

Dezhou is one of China’s greenest cities. Located on the banks of the Grand Canal in northern Shandong province, 280 miles southeast of Beijing, it has pioneered the use and production of solar panels, and is home to China’s Solar Valley – a national production and innovation centre for solar energy.

A stone’s throw from Solar Valley, Dezhou East Station on the newly-opened Beijing to Shanghai High Speed Passenger Dedicated Line, has just opened.

From here, passengers can be whisked to Beijing in less than two hours, and to Shanghai in less than three, all in great comfort, and whilst still connected to the world via their mobile phones.

There is a growing network of passenger dedicated high speed lines in China, but surprisingly the first one opened only a few years ago.

The short 74.5 miles hop from Beijing to the neighbouring metropolis of Tianjin opened shortly before the Olympics, the line has become the preferred means of travel between the two cities, conveniently dropping travellers in the centre of Tianjin, and linking to the Beijing subway in the central south of the city at the other end.

Incredible developments

Construction of the 819 mile Beijing to Shanghai line took little more than three years when it opened on July 1st this year; phenomenal by any standards, and construction of the northern half of a line from Beijing to the southern metropolis of Guangzhou (Canton) is nearly completed, and with the southern half having opened a year and a half ago it will soon be possible to travel overland to Guangzhou, and on to nearby Hong Kong, in about six hours.

The region – the Pearl River Delta – is probably the most developed region in the country, and is a huge manufacturing and service centre base.

Already, high speed lines connect Guangzhou to Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, and to Zhuhai, on the border with Macau, and a new through line is under construction linking Guangzhou to Hong Kong directly.

What will be the world’s longest passenger dedicated high speed line, the route from Shanghai west to Kunming in China’s beautiful Yunnan province is under construction, and will cut to about ten hours a journey that currently takes 37 hours.

300 mph EMUs

The new high speed lines are designed as a network linking major population centres in a grid pattern, with lines running north – south and others running east – west, concurrent with plans for non-high speed rail corridors.

Although some lines are passenger dedicated high speed, such as the new Beijing to Shanghai line, others are designed for normal speed traffic as well, mixing conventional locomotive-hauled services with high speed EMUs.

The latest of these is the CRH380 which has a maximum speed of 236 mph. These units first saw service on the line from Shanghai to Hangzhou in eastern China, where they shortened an almost two-hour journey to just 45 minutes. One of these units set the world speed record of 302.794 mph during test runs.

Whilst China Railways has an enviable safety record combined with almost total reliability and punctuality, corruption is a national problem with accusations of shortcuts and financial irregularities widespread.

This has led to the sacking of several top ranking railway officials, including the ex-head of the Ministry of Railways and three more in the aftermath of the recent tragedy at Wenzhou. This will lead to a re-appraisal of safety standards and a temporary slowing down of the rapid rate of construction.

China exports a wide range of conventional rolling stock to many countries, and it is surely only a matter of time before China’s EMUs are seen on overseas railways as well, probably including Britain.

Recently David Cameron suggested to the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, on his visit to the UK, that China should be involved in building HS2, and China’s international pre-eminence in high speed rail was recognized last year with the holding of the seventh International High Speed Rail Congress in Beijing.

Trans Asia railway

As the foremost economy in Asia, China not only builds lines on its own territory. Construction on the new high speed line from Kunming, in Southwestern China, to Singapore started in April this year.

The line will provide a huge economic boost to countries along its route – China, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. The line is part of the Trans-Asia Railway network and is due to open in 2025. It is bold moves such as these which herald the return of the Railway Age.

Make the Pulse Race

The lessons of Wenzhou must be learnt but they must be seen against the fact that rail, when properly built and operated, with all the latest safety systems in place, is the safest mode of land transportation.

It has the power to stimulate economies, create jobs and enrich societies. High speed rail, in particular, has the ability to do all of this plus something else; it has the ability to lift the spirit and make the pulse race. No bad thing in these dark depressed days of cut backs and redundancies.


  1. All those lamenting about the lack of high speed rail in the UK need to think about travel times between major cities, not whether there is high speed rail or not.
    How long does it take to get between Beijing and Shanghai ?  How long between London and Glasgow ?  I’m a buyer of high speed for the UK, but things do need to be put into perspective.
    There’s far too much sounding off about the merits of high speed rail from those who’ve only pulled an atlas from a bookshelf and claim that ‘something should be done’.


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