Posted On: Thursday - September 7th 2023 8:54AM MST
In Topics:   China  Peak Stupidity Roadshow
(Continued from **Planes** and **Planes-II** of our Dispatches from The Middle Kingdom: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles series.)
Due to my having a window seat on both of our Chinese high-speed rail (I'll just use HSR from here on) trips, I didn't get up much. That means that I don't think I would have missed any speed higher than that shown on the display at the front of the rail car. Generally, we went at and no more than 300 km/hr = 185 mph, at least on one of the runs, and I believe that was the limit for that line.
Besides Maglev trains (more on them, actually "it" below), this is at the top of the speed range that HS trains in Japan, France or elsewhere get to. It's not AMAZING in today's day and age - one can go faster on a maglev train. However, the construction of these lines calls for lots of elevated track and tunnels (to avoid steep slopes and high derivatives of slope, sharp curves), no grade crossings, seamless track, and I'm sure other higher quality railroad features than one needs for 80 mph freight trains. What's amazing is that within a decade or so, China has built this complete network of HSR lines, that they are highly used, that they likely can pay for themselves, and just that the whole thing WORKS.
That's a shorter time period than it took for Americans to build the bulk of the Interstate Highway system, very advanced for its time, with cruder technology (I'm thinking of the many long tunnels in China here, requiring lots of impressive machines). It's an apples-to-oranges comparison, but still, I am greatly impressed by the sheer amount of concrete in the millions of high columns and track support beam alone. Then, there are those tunnels - with mountainous terrain almost covering the Middle Kingdom. This is no white elephant.
To explain that, let me note that on the shorter run, 4 hours from Peking to Shanghai**, I attempted to estimate how many opposite direction trains we passed. A few times, I got 8 minute intervals, but some were closer to 4 or 5 minutes. If we take 8 per hour we get 32 trains, meaning they are separated by ~ 25 miles. (This made me wonder if there is a "siding" of some sort within that interval, or some way to get a broken train out of the way, if need be.*** Push it over and into the ravine below and bury it? Hmmmm...)
I might be slightly off on my basic numbers - cars in the train, and seats per car (2 abreast) - but believe it was 10 cars with 80 seats per, so there's an 800 passenger capacity. Therefore with 8 per hour on the line, they can move, let's say 100,000 to 150,000 people in a 24 period if they needed to. (If they needed to, they'd probably tighten up the spacing too.) That's pretty amazing. Airlines don't and CAN'T carry nearly as many.
Since I'm comparing these trains to airline service, let me state that the rides were extremely smooth and quiet, with none of that clickety clack and almost imperceptible accelerations other than during the approach and exit to/from the stations. The trains were roughly 80-90% full. In fact, for one of the trips, we were lucky to get tickets at all due to capacity. The seats were like coach airline seats with another foot of pitch - a big deal, of course! One could get up to go to the snack bar, bathroom, or walk the length of the train.
That is the station in the big city where we left for Peking. (I think. If not, this was Peking south.) It was packed. The security set-up has close to the airport level of annoyance. National ID cards, passports for foreigners, facial recognition, all that are part of it. One lines up, best Chinese people can give it a go, by the track number, and the boarding is done in 10-15 minutes. They need to, as each track waiting line, well it must be for a pair of 2 tracks, has a list of trains going out very frequently.
The ticket prices were cheap. We paid in the neighborhood of $60 for the Peking-Shanghai run and something like double that for the much longer run. Can these trains make money? I don't know if they are right now or not, but there's plenty of room to bump up ticket prices, IMO, as they are nowhere near airline prices. These trains really do compete pretty well with the airlines, at least on a run like the 4 hour one. Something from our old post Trains in the Orient vs. America comes in here. These huge train stations are not necessarily right downtown. Many can't be, I suppose - no way to get that much track and land in now. However, one can take subways to and from, so it's not like driving to the big hub airport with that parking and hassle.
That leads right into the part about the one MagLev train. This one goes from the big Shanghai train station - which is IN the city of Shanghai, the Pudong District (not what you're thinking!), but not what you might call downtown - to the airport. I rode this myself a couple of times years ago. What I remembered right is "8". Well, 8 is the lucky number, but was that the price or the duration of the ride? It was both. 50 RMB is ~ 8 bucks right now, and the ride took 8 minutes. We did only the same speed the other trains did 300 km/hr. I thought I'd remembered wrong, but, upon looking this up just now, on some of the runs, it gets up to 431 km/hr = 265 mph. With the low ridership we saw this time and others, and from the numbers I looked up, this one IS a white elephant. It's a fun white elephant though!
Back to the subject of the regular HSR in China, what I need to do is put up more pictures. (I've got plenty of video too.) I think I'll make another post with some. It'll not be so much about the trains, but about what one can see of China.
Your Peak Stupidity blogger may sound like pundit Fred Reed or some 10 y/o kid here. I am not impressed so much with the speed, the comfort, and the efficiency. What I'm impressed with is what you can see below. This is not some one-off. This is life there now:
I had to blow up that legend for readability after shrinking the image. I am sorry the city names are hard to see. Here is a bigger, clearer version of this map.
* Yes, I know, 213.75 mph, but Peak Stupidity has a thing for round numbers.
** The straight line distance is 665 miles, but, for terrain and possibly land-use reasons, the web says it's an 820 mile trip. With a time enroute of 4:20 or so, that works out to 305 km/hr, AVERAGE!
This was an express train, so we may have stopped only once or twice, if at all. (This whole trip is blurring together. We rode another train on a different route, which did have a couple of dozen stops.)
*** That brings up merging and forking on these HS tracks. How much of that do they have? It's got to be a bit more sophisticated than that on ordinary track.