The new high-speed railway between Shenzhen and Xiamen opened yesterday, slicing the journey from an area many Hongkongers call home to the southeast coast from 15 hours to just 3-1/2 hours.
The 514km line is also a major breakthrough in connecting the rich, but relatively less accessible area of eastern Guangdong to the rest of the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong and Fujian province.
More than 21.4 million people live in the areas of Chaozhou and Shantou (known collectively as Chaoshan). Many Hongkongers, including Hong Kong's richest man Li Ka-shing, hail from the area.
The new train line, with 18 stations, also connects the Pearl River Delta, with a population of 140 million, with Fujian province, with a population of more than 37 million. Guangdong officials said travel from any place in the delta to Fujian would now take less than four hours.
The new line also connects with another high-speed line from Xiamen to Shanghai, linking for the first time the three important economic hubs of the Pearl River Delta, the proposed western Taiwan straits economic zone, and the Yangtze River Delta.
Twenty-six trains will depart from Shenzhen daily to different destinations including Xiamen, Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou . Travel time from Shenzhen to Xiamen will be cut from 15 hours to 31/2. Two trains will run daily between Guangzhou and the new Chaoshan station built between Chaozhou and Shantou.
Passengers on the first train to Xiamen said ticket prices were competitive. A one-way first-class ticket from Shenzhen cost 181 yuan (HK$229), while a second-class ticket cost 150.50 yuan, cheaper than a coach service (190 yuan) and flying, which usually costs more than 700 yuan.
Guo Qianxiang, a Chinese medicine practitioner from Guangzhou, said he saved time and money on his trip. "I work in Guangzhou and go back home to Shantou once a month. In the past, it took at least four hours and more then 1,000 yuan by plane, or six hours and 180 yuan by coach. Today, I would only spend 164 yuan and less than three hours for the trip," he said.
A Fujian tourism bureau official, who was on the train yesterday to promote tourism, said the province was rolling out discounts for hotels in Xiamen in the hope that the new line would bring a 30 per cent rise in the number of tourists from Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta.
Authorities have not provided any official estimates on the project's cost, but mainland media estimate it at 41.7 billion yuan.
"I am looking forward to the opening of the railway. It will save me a lot of money and time on transportation," said a woman from Zhangzhou city in Fujian, who travels to Hong Kong to shop two or three times a year.
"It costs at least 2,000 yuan to fly to Hong Kong through Shenzhen. Now it only costs about 200 yuan. I will definitely go to Hong Kong more often."
However, some passengers complained their ears popped due to a sudden change in air pressure as the train sped through tunnels. The journey goes through 71 tunnels and crosses 159 bridges.
"Making phone calls is a big problem on the train," said a businessman from Wenzhou . "If I can not be reached by mobile for eight hours or even 12 hours, I would miss many important calls from clients."
Some passengers also complained about insufficient public transport to the new Chaoshan station, which is about 40 minutes drive from both Chaozhou and Shantou cities.
China's railway network now spans more than 100,000km, including 10,000km of high speed lines, as of Saturday, when several new rail links started operations in addition to the Shenzhen-Xiamen line. These include the Xi'an-Baoji high rail, the Chongqing-Lichuan railway, and others in Guangxi .