China’s High-Speed Rail
Beijing puts all its muscle into building a massive, state-of-the-art high-speed railroad network
Photographs for TIME by Michael Christopher Brown
Engine of Growth
In the past three decades, China has more than doubled the mileage of new track in its railroad system. In the coming year, it will spend $120 billion on the construction of new lines, many of which will handle high-speed rail.
The system offers a vast improvement over the aging, traditional rail network, which was known for being filthy and overcrowded.
Need for Speed
Railroad authorities have focused intently on upgrading the system’s speed. In July 2010, the fastest train to date — it can travel as fast as 220 m.p.h. (355 km/h) — went into service, linking Shanghai to Suzhou and Nanjing. By comparison, Japan’s fastest train reaches speeds of just 160 m.p.h. (260 km/h), while the Acela, America’s fastest rail link, averages an anemic 72 m.p.h. (116 km/h).
Critics of the system complain that high-speed rail poorly serves the country. They say that most Chinese, especially the vast rural population, travel infrequently and are perfectly content to pay less for slower service.
Still, the Chinese middle class is growing rapidly, and the service has created a new class of intercity commuters. In this photo, passengers wait to board high-speed trains leaving the railway station in Suzhou, pop. almost 6 million.
Passengers buy tickets for high-speed trains leaving Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. The machines have instructions in both Chinese and English.
A train operator and two train officials sit in front of the first-class cabin, en route to Suzhou.
The Shanghai-Nanjing route is one of the busiest railway corridors on earth.
The new trains have reduced the travel time between Shanghai and Nanjing from two hours to 73 minutes, with nonstop service.
Work in Progress
Fewer than half of the railway lines entering the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station are currently in operation.
Travelers photograph themselves in front of the new train.
Window on the Future
Chinese officials say the current high-speed rail network is only the beginning. The domestic system will continue to expand, while Chinese firms will participate in constructing rail projects in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Turkey. There are also reports that Beijing wants to build a high-speed link between China and Europe.