The country continues its plans with newly revealed ticket prices and top speeds, all under pressure to have a spotless safety record


Reuters/Jason Lee

What changes the debate over high-speed trains yielded were revealed yesterday: lower ticket prices and slower top speeds, all to increase passenger volume and reduce the cost of operations. But the project of an integrated high-speed rail network will continue apace, according to the railway ministry officials. Over the 12th Five-Year Plan period, China is expected to have 120,000 kilometers of total rail, of which 45,000 kilometers will be high speed. Total spending on rail over those years is estimated to come in at around $430 billion. So no significant u-turn as I had expected--only modest compromises on a project that should continue to drive a whole lot of investment.

The ticket prices were revealed weeks before the Beijing-Shanghai line--which will cover 1,300 kilometers in five hours--commences operation at the end of June. Somewhat unexpected, the tickets were priced below expectations, likely to compete with airlines, which are generally competitive at distances over 1,000km. Ticket prices are as follows (you can apparently get them here):

For 250 kilometers/hour train: First class $100; Second class $63

For 300 kilometers/hour train: Business class $270; First class $144; Second class $85

Although the stylish "Harmony Express" CRH380A clocked record speeds above 400 kilometers/hour during trial runs, once in service, they will be jogging at a laughably lazy 300 kilometers/hour. This is clearly a nod to the concerns about forsaking safety in the name of pushing the limits of speed. But the railway ministry has eschewed that explanation, instead arguing that the reduced speed is primarily meant to lower maintenance and operational costs and improve efficiency.

Wang Mengshu, an expert on high-speed railways and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said the ministry was trying to clarify a misunderstanding caused by an interview with Rail Minister Sheng Guangzu in People's Daily last month. In the interview, Sheng said that one benefit of running Beijing-Shanghai trains at 300km/h was increased "safety redundancy."

The trains themselves have also received a facelift, adopting an even more futuristic mien with an elongated silver nose that is more reminiscent of a "bullet." Just how well do they function? Take a look inside (check out the stacked empty bottles demonstration at the end to underscore stability):

Another factor that has struck me--and likely a lesson learned from the recent debates--is the seeming improved transparency with which the government is handling the rollout of its capstone Beijing-Shanghai line. Or perhaps it's just glorified PR to instill confidence into consumers. Either way, government officials appear to be spending more time explaining the benefits of high-speed rail. According to one of the chief engineers who helped design the CRH380A, the new trains offer several advantages and accoutrements:

1. On design: A new 12-meter long aerodynamic train nose that reduces air drag by about 10%--a design that was eventually selected from among 10 different models initially

2. On amenities: Equipped with 3G WiFi (attractive for business travelers and potential advantage over planes)

3. On being green: All energy-efficient LED lighting installed throughout the trains. Average energy consumption per 100 kilometers is 1/5 that of autos and 1/8 that of planes.

4. On safety: Outfitted with all sorts of sensor devices and fail-safe and accident-prevention systems.

Even as the first CRH380A departs the Beijing rail station, the debate about the future of Chinese high-speed rail will not end. The debt burden issue still looms. And just like nuclear power, China is now under intense pressure to demonstrate as spotless a safety record on rail service as possible, lest it risks the edifice of credibility tumbling down. That this debate is taking place at all and in an increasingly open manner, rather than exclusively within ministry conference rooms, is incremental progress indeed--one that cannot be measured in kilometers/hour.

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