Affordability beats luxury on high-speed line

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 April, 2011, 12:00am


Rail passengers hoping to travel from Beijing to Shanghai in imperial levels of luxury when the new high-speed link opens this summer are likely to have their hopes dashed.

Mainland media reported yesterday that the service's proposed high-end berths and cabins had been abandoned in favour of places for ordinary travellers.

The Beijing Daily said 'airline-style' first-class carriages had initially been installed, with VIP cabins and fully reclining executive seats, to help the trains compete with domestic airlines for the lucrative business traveller market.

However, the paper quoted an unnamed railway official as saying these carriages were now being stripped and replaced with ordinary first- and second-class seats.

The move to tear out opulent fittings and refit them with more frugal furnishings follows the Ministry of Railways' announcements that the maximum operating speeds of high-speed trains would be lowered, starting from July, in the interests of safety and affordability.

New Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu said in a People's Daily interview published last week that speeds on the flagship Beijing-Shanghai link - due to start operating in late June - would be limited to 300km/h, down from the previously touted 380 km/h, with a slower service also running at up to 250 km/h.

High-speed trains already in operation travel at up to 350 km/h.

Sheng was appointed after the fall in February of Liu Zhijun, who allegedly took more than 800 million yuan (HK$951 million) in kickbacks on contracts linked to expanding the high-speed rail network.

The reduction in speed means the journey between the political and financial capitals, which was previously expected to take just four hours, would be extended to five. The current fastest trains take 10 hours.

In an earlier interview, Sheng told Xinhua the government had planned to spend 2.8 trillion yuan on railway construction until 2015, lower than previous estimates but still 41 per cent more than in the previous five-year period.

The high-speed rail network reached 8,358 kilometres at the end of last year and is expected to exceed 13,000 kilometres by the end of next year and 16,000 kilometres by the end of 2020.

Despite increased speeds bringing swifter, more reliable train links throughout the country, the rising cost of rail travel since the technological upgrade has started to provoke a backlash among grass-roots travellers.

As the number of slower trains running routes is reduced when high-speed trains come into service, competition for cheaper tickets is becoming fierce, particularly during peak holiday periods.

The phrase 'to get high-sped' has entered the vernacular as slang for the difficulties middle-income families face trying to find an affordable way to get home in the wake of route upgrades.

Experts have also raised concerns over safety and construction quality due to the rapid expansion of high-speed lines. The rate at which new track is being laid has caused some commentators to question whether lower-grade building materials are being used for those in short supply, such as high-quality fly ash.

Analysts also warned earlier this month that the Railways Ministry could face a debt crisis as a result of its massive infrastructure drive.

Writing in China Reform magazine, Professor Zhao Jian of Beijing Jiaotong University, estimated that the ministry had 1.8 trillion yuan of liabilities at the end of last year and its interest payments exceeded 100 billion yuan a year.

Running out of steam

Dreams of a four-hour Beijing to Shanghai trip have been dashed

Instead, a cut in the top speed of trains will mean travelling between the cities takes this many hours: 5

But even the longer time is much faster than today's quickest trains, which take this many hours to link the cities: 10