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Past, Present And Future: The Evolution Of China's Incredible High-speed Rail Network

2021-09-15


At the beginning of the 21st century China had no high-speed railways.


Slow and often uncomfortable trains plodded across this vast country, with low average speeds making journeys such as Shanghai-Beijing a test of travel endurance.

Today, it's a completely different picture. The world's most populous nation has -- by some distance -- the world's largest network of high-speed railways.

No fewer than 37,900 kilometers (about 23,500 miles) of lines crisscross the country, linking all of its major mega-city clusters, and all have been completed since 2008.

Half of that total has been completed in the last five years alone, with a further 3,700 kilometers due to open in the coming months of 2021.

The network is expected to double in length again, to 70,000 kilometers, by 2035.

With maximum speeds of 350 kph (217 mph) on many lines, intercity travel has been transformed and the dominance of airlines has been broken on the busiest routes.

By 2020, 75% of Chinese cities with a population of 500,000 or more had a high-speed rail ink.

Spain, which has Europe's most extensive high-speed network and occupies second place in the global league table, is a minnow in comparison with just over 2,000 miles of dedicated lines built for operation at over 250 kph.

In contrast, the UK currently has just 107 kilometers while the United States has only one rail route that (just about) qualifies for high-speed status -- Amtrak's North East Corridor, where Acela trains currently top out at 240 kph on expensively rebuilt sections of existing line shared with commuter and freight trains.

A symbol of economic power

China's ambition is to make high-speed rail the mode of choice for domestic long-distance travel, but these new railways have a much greater significance.

Much like Japan's Shinkansen in the 1960s, they are a symbol of the country's economic power, rapid modernization, growing technological prowess and increasing prosperity.

For China's ruling Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping, high-speed rail is also a powerful tool for social cohesion, political influence and the integration of disparate regions with distinct cultures into the mainstream.

                                                                                                                   -----------------CNN