Glitches still to be ironed out for world's longest high-speed railway

Trip on section of Beijing-Guangzhou line - world's longest - reveals issues needing fixing before public service starts on Wednesday

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 5:26am

With just days to go before the first passengers climb aboard the world's longest high-speed railway, the operators of the new Beijing-Guangzhou line were scrambling to work out last-minute glitches.

A train carrying journalists between Beijing and the Henan provincial capital, Zhengzhou, yesterday was delayed for more than 20 minutes by technical problems. It arrived in Zhengzhou after noon, more than 30 minutes behind schedule.

Zhao Chunlei, the Railway Ministry's director of traffic control, shrugged off the delays, saying he expected most of the bugs to be fixed before the 3,200-kilometre railway officially opens on Wednesday.

"We have encountered many problems during the test run period; some remain to be solved," Zhao said. "The more issues that trouble us now, the less they will trouble passengers during formal operations."

Zhao would not say what percentage of trains had arrived on time during the trial period, but he said the ministry was aiming for an on-time performance of no less than 95 per cent after the official launch.

Once fully operational, the new link between the mainland's political centre and the southern metropolis of Guangzhou is expected to provide major competition to the country's airline industry, especially on short- and medium-haul routes.

The line - which will replace the Beijing-Shanghai railway as the world's longest high-speed line - will pass through six provinces with a combined population of more than 600 million. The ministry says passengers will be able to travel its entire length in under eight hours.

There are already signs that airlines may slash fares to compete. The Nanfang Daily reported that major carriers such as China Southern, Air China and China Eastern have set fares for flights between Wuhan and Beijing below 200 yuan (HK$246), about a tenth of the normal price.

Beijing Jiaotong University economics professor Zhao Jian said that most passengers would still prefer flying for long trips, such as Beijing to Guangzhou, but the railway could seriously affect air travel on routes shorter than 1,000 kilometres.

Although tickets start at more than 500 yuan, the convenience of train travel is worth the price, many feel. Quietly zipping across China's vast and varying countryside at 300km/h, the train provides a visual experience that flights cannot match. Nearly 90 per cent of the economy-class tickets available for travel between Wuhan and Beijing on Wednesday have been sold.

Still, not everything is perfect. The train's air-filtration system was no match for some heavy-industry zones where smog entered the cabin, causing some passengers to sneeze and cough.

There were other signs it was a work in progress. Toilets were spacious and clean, but only half had seats. The temperature of two connecting cabins sometimes varied dramatically, from warm to freezing.

Mobile phone signals were unreliable, with the connection dropping and returning as the train moved between villages. First-class seats had power outlets for laptop computers or other electronic devices, but passengers could not connect to available Wi-fi signals.

The train also does not offer some of the comforts found during air travel. Economy seats have no entertainment systems and first-class passengers must share two small overhead monitors that had some passengers squinting.

However, the priority was making sure the trains ran on time. The 95 per cent punctuality target cited by Zhao Chunlei seemed ambitious given the frequent and major delays encountered after the launch of the Beijing-Shanghai line last year.

"One of our biggest concerns is snow," Zhao said. "Large snowfalls can loosen the grip of wheels on rails, forcing the train to slow down. Equipment failures on trains or along the line could also lead to delays. We will do our best to give passengers a safe and comfortable journey."