In praise of China's high-speed trains

Peter Kammerer is wowed by China's high-speed trains but says tickets must be affordable for all here to justify the cost of the Hong Kong link

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 2:57am

The 50-minute high-speed rail trip from Guangzhou South station to Shaoguan in northern Guangdong province isn't one of the world's great train journeys. Rice paddies blur by, tunnels are a blink from dark to day and the local colour so craved on those trips to elsewhere is obliterated by the squeaky-new, technological brilliance of it all.

Besides, most of the time is spent not looking out of the panoramic windows, but at the digital display above the carriage compartment door showing the speed as it pushes on to 310km/h. What velocity and comfort take away, though, is amply made up for by the mind-changing experience.

I admit to having been an objector to Hong Kong being connected to the national high-speed network through a line from Shenzhen to West Kowloon. Cost was part of the problem: using at least HK$66.9 billion of Hong Kong taxpayers' money for a project that, in all likelihood, would be operated and managed by mainland entities seemed excessively rich. The lack of public consultation and the way in which funding was pushed through the Legislative Council in January 2010, despite fierce opposition, left the sourest of tastes.

In the rush to start construction, vital questions seemed to have been ignored. What was wrong with the far less expensive and more practical idea of ending the line at Shenzhen and connecting it to the West Rail? Who would bother taking a high-speed rail trip to Guangzhou given that the train was going to stop 30 minutes' short of the city centre, or make the 10-hour ride to Beijing for a cost similar to the three-hour flight? Importantly, who was it going to serve - the people of Hong Kong or mainland shoppers?

A group tour last week to the Danxia red sandstone cliffs swept doubts aside. Only after getting off the ferry at Guangzhou's Panyu district did I learn that the trip north would be by high-speed rail. The Guangzhou South station made no impression; it was just like any other new mainland public building, bloated in size and lacking character. But after 10 minutes on the train, the enormity of it all hit home. This was rail travel better than Japanese can do it.

I'm not new to high-speed rail travel - I've ridden Japan's Shinkansen and France's TGV a number of times. There is little doubt that the pride of the mainland's rail fleet, the CRH380, owes substantially more to begging, borrowing and stealing than innovation. That said, in a mere decade, a system has been developed and built that is the world's most extensive, fastest and in all likelihood, the best. It is so impressive that governments seeking high-speed rail solutions are looking most to China.

Danxia's rock formations were truly worthy of their Unesco heritage listing, but were not the highlight of my trip; rather, it was the two high-speed rail journeys. Being able to get to second- and third-tier mainland cities quickly, with little fuss, opens up all manner of business and tourism opportunities.

But I am not yet a 100-per-cent convert to the Hong Kong link. Unless fares are priced so that every Hong Kong citizen can afford a high-speed rail ticket, taxpayers' money will have been squandered. For our city to benefit, everyone has to be able to get a seat.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post