The 50 per cent speed increase on the high-speed rail from Harbin to Dalian, originally scheduled for April 1, is likely be postponed for operational and safety reasons.
The route passes through the northeast provinces of Liaoning and Jilin to the capital of Heilongjiang province, and experiences some of the coldest weather in China. When the service was launched in December, the trains were intended to operate at 200km/h in winter and 300km/h in summer, starting from April.
But some official train ticket agents in both cities said earlier this week they had received no official word that the trains would start operating at the higher speed. "We should have received instructions by now, but we haven't. So it is unlikely to happen," said one agent, without giving her name.
Speculation about the delay had been reported by local and state media, including the Dalian Evening News and the website of People's Daily this week.
The Harbin to Dalian route, which takes 5½ hours at the slower speed, has been one of China's most troublesome high-speed rail projects.
Stretching more than 900 kilometres, it was the nation's most northerly high-speed line and faces extremely low temperatures. Harbin has the coldest, longest and most snowbound winters of any provincial capital. Its six-year construction cost more 95 billion yuan (HK$117 billion), more than 25 per cent over budget. Its project manager was detained by anti-corruption authorities two years ago, and the launch was delayed for months over concerns about the standard of construction.
Rail authorities blamed the weather for the latest delay.
An anonymous rail official told the People's Daily website that the rail line had been hit by 30 blizzards in its first three months of operation. Although there were no accidents, the weather in April could still be unpredictable, raising safety concerns.
"This year northeast China experienced more snowstorms and longer icing periods than usual," the official was quoted as saying.
"There is still no final decision that the weather in April will be suitable for raising the train speed. This is the most important reason for the delay."
The authorities also said that the central government's institutional reform to hive off the monolithic rail ministry into three different entities had created administrative issues that also affected the speed increase.
But Wang Mengshu, deputy chief engineer at the China Railway Tunnel Group who was familiar with the railway's construction, said yesterday that the line had suffered from poor management that led to some serious quality concerns.
The line was not suitable to run at its designed speed until those problems were resolved, he said.
"The construction management was desperate to cut costs," Wang said. "They cancelled the construction of many bridges and tunnels, laying the rails directly on ground that was vulnerable to ice."
The expansion of ice in soil can stretch and twist rail lines beyond their safety limit, he said. About a fourth of the line was laid on such soils.
But ice was not the only issue troubling the railway and threatening passenger safety.
An internal document obtained by 21st Century Business Herald from the rail authorities showed some sections of the rails were unevenly joined. At high speed, the bumpy joints could affect passenger comfort or even jeopardise safety.
Many drainage pipelines were also blocked due to design or construction problems.
Construction problems were so numerous and severe that the project drew a tirade of criticism from a former deputy rail minister at a meeting last summer, the newspaper said.
A rise in train speed, when implemented, will see ticket prices rise by 50 per cent. A second class ticket from Harbin to Dalian costs 123 yuan at present.