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China's high-speed trains attract frustrated fliers

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Story highlights

  • China's high-speed rail network is now the world's busiest with daily ridership exceeding 1.3 million
  • China launched the country's first high-speed service in 2007
  • The rapid construction has raised doubts about the service's safety and commercial viability
  • The government plans to complete a 25,000-kilometer high-speed network by 2020

With less than half an hour to spare, Chen Zhu calmly emerged from the subway station connected to the massive Beijing West Railway Station with a small, wheeled bag.

Upon retrieving her ticket from a kiosk, Chen breezed through the security checkpoint before scanning her ticket to open an automated gate leading to the platform. Five minutes after boarding, she was reading a book as her bullet train pulled out of the station precisely on time.

For this young journalist who frequently travels for work, these steps have become part of an increasingly appealing routine amid worsening air traffic congestion at major airports across China.

"Flights out of Beijing are always delayed," Chen said. "Door to door, high-speed trains are often faster than flying for me.

"I usually get to the station last minute and board the train right before departure. The service is just so punctual."

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China's fast-expanding high-speed rail network is now the world's busiest with daily ridership exceeding 1.3 million.

    On morning of Chen's journey, train G511 raced through the countryside at 300 kmph (186 mph) from Beijing to the central city of Wuhan in just five hours -- less than half the time of the regular rail route.

    The new link between Beijing and Wuhan opened last December and added to what has become the world's longest high-speed rail line, running almost 2,300 kilometers (1,429 miles) from the Chinese capital to the southern metropolis of Guangzhou.

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    Although Chen still prefers to fly on longer routes, she says on business trips shorter than six hours, the choice of train over plane is now a no-brainer.

    "I work or read on the train," she said, highlighting the benefit of uninterrupted mobile phone reception. "It's great that everyone has access to a power outlet."

    At $85, her second-class seat costs less than half of a full-fare economy-class plane ticket on this major business route.

    Now the world's second-largest economy, and flush with cash, China has been busy purchasing foreign rail technologies and building high-speed lines.

    The Chinese government, which owns and operates all domestic rail companies, launched the country's first high-speed service in 2007 and now boasts 9,300 kilometers (5,778 miles) of high-speed routes nationwide, turning a nonexistent network into the world's longest in a few short years.

    "In less than a decade, we constructed more high-speed rail lines than what it took Japan and Europe 40 years to build," said Zhao Jian, an economics professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and one of the country's leading experts on rail transportation.

    "We've had such amazing growth because land expropriation is cheap and so is labor," he explained. "You also have the economy of scale -- other countries usually build a few hundred kilometers of tracks, but in China we're talking about thousands of kilometers."

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    Although Zhao is often cited as a skeptical voice in the development of high-speed rail in China, even he is impressed after taking a few rides.

    "I've taken high-speed trains in Japan, Germany, France, South Korea and Taiwan," he said. "Ours offer the smoothest and fastest ride in the world."

    The massive investments and rapid construction, however, have raised public concerns over the new service's safety record and commercial viability, amid state media reports of empty trains traveling between inconvenient new stations in less-developed provinces.

    Already, rail officials have slowed down some bullet trains -- originally planned to run as fast as 380 kmph (236 mph) -- to make the service safer and cheaper.

    "Raising the speed to 350kmph (217 mph) or 380 kmph (236 mph) would lower built-in safety redundancies, and greatly increase wear-and-tear and operating costs," Zhao said. "It's not the faster, the better."

    During most of her journey, Chen's train was only half full, but that hasn't dampened her enthusiasm for her favorite mode of transportation.

    "I think in parts of the country, taking high-speed trains will be like taking buses in the future," she said.

    The Chinese government is reportedly spending some $300 billion to make that vision a reality, moving full steam ahead on its plan to build a 25,000-kilometer (15,534 mile) high-speed rail network by 2020.

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