Riding the high-speed rails
TIMES NEWS PHOTO BY BRANDON TAYLOR The intercity train for Tianjin, a coastal city near Beijing, ready to leave the Beijing South Railway station. Not five minutes after departing, the train cruises at a smooth 211 mph toward Tianjin.
My seat was in the full, upright position as one of the attendants came by. I showed her my ticket, to which she smiled and said, "Enjoy your trip."
The seat was spacious and comfortable. I'd paid extra for business class. And I had a window seat. A muffled voice came over the loudspeaker, informing us about our departure time and destination. Before I could ask for a complimentary drink, we were off - the intercity train for Tianjin, a coastal city near Beijing, leaving the station without so much as a jolt or engine start.
I wouldn't have even realized we were moving had the scenery outside my window not changed from Beijing South Railway station to the southern outskirts of the city. Not five minutes after departing, we were cruising at a smooth 340 km per hour (211 mph) toward Tianjin. I didn't even have time to soak up the scenery - we arrived at the coastal city 30 minutes later.
I'm not sure what was more impressive: the lack of any clickety-clacking sounds as we glided briskly along or the fact I was enjoying a train ride in the first place (and a nice train at that).
In the United States, train rides are usually limited to special occasions. As a child, I usually got the thrill of feeling the rails beneath my feet during the Tamaqua Historical Society's annual Heritage Festival, when large locomotives rolled into town, billowing smoke and blowing their whistles.
I've often heard stories and seen pictures of Tamaqua during its coal mining heyday when it was a major rail hub. Passenger trains made regular stops at the Tamaqua Railroad Station, until they stopped altogether in 1961. Now, taking a train is restricted to that once-a-year occasion.
Of course, there is the Amtrak link between Washington, D.C., and New York City, but for anyone outside metropolitan areas in America's east, train travel - particularly high-speed train travel - is excruciatingly limited, if not non-existent.
Not so in China. Trains, as many Chinese friends and co-workers have told me, are more widely used than planes.
China's current rail network covers more than 53,000 miles, with about 3,000 passenger trains operating daily. Almost all major cities from China's east coast to the western interior are connected by rail.
During China's major holidays, when city dwellers return to their home provinces, most trains are standing room only - and some train rides can last longer than eight hours.
Last July, I took an overnight train to Xi'an. I was skeptical about spending the night on a train in motion since I usually don't sleep well on airplanes or while traveling in general. But I slept like a baby - the calm, consistent rolling of the wheels helping me drift into dreamland. I awoke only once, and that was due to the snoring of the guy in the bunk above me.
But it was the high-speed train to Tianjin that sold me on China's modern and vast rail network. The seats were more comfortable and spacious than the business class sections of most aircraft I'd taken and the ride lacked any turbulence common during flights. It was, as I would imagine, like floating on a cloud - an extremely fast cloud.
But what gave the trip real meaning was that I'd traveled to Tianjin by bus last fall - and it took two and a half hours that time.
China will continue to improve and expand its system of high-speed rails - by 2012 the Asian giant is expected to have more than 8,000 miles of high-speed track, greater than the rest of the world combined, and by 2020 almost 31,000 miles. And in the coming years, the United States, too, will invest in a high-speed rail network, an undertaking put forward by President Obama last year, and provide fast, quality rail service as a cheap alternative to air travel. It could also be one solution to breaking America's fixation on oil.
Friends from abroad have told me about the amazing bullet train (Shinkansen) in Japan and the super-fast Chunnel train connecting Great Britain and France. Now I can tell them about the Beijing-Tianjin intercity train. And I'll be waiting ever so patiently for the opportunity to ride a high-speed train across America.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. Read Brandon's blog at http://www.btay200.blogspot.com/. He can be reached at email@example.com.