A train designed to run at a top speed of 200 km per hour left east China's Shanghai for Suzhou early Wednesday morning, ushering in a high-speed era for the world's fastest growing economy.
Nationwide, 140 pairs of high-speed trains will begin to hit the railways on Wednesday. The number will increase to 257 by the end of this year.
"That length (6,003 km) exceeds the total amount of rail lines capable of accommodating trains at that speed (200 kph) in nine European countries," said Vice-Minister of Railways Hu Yadong.
As of today, trains will be able to run at speeds of up to 160 kph on 14,000 kilometers of track and up to 120 kph on 22,000 km of track.
The 6,003 km of track capable of accommodating the fastest speeds will serve both high-speed passenger and heavily loaded cargo trains, which travel at slower speeds.
Railway operators will have to address the speed gap between the two kinds of trains to make sure they both run safely.
He Huawu, the ministry's general engineer, said the ministry had drafted an operational chart to allow trains to run at an interval of "only five minutes.”
He also noted that in addition to the speed gap between passenger and cargo trains, the two have "totally opposite requirements for tracks." For example, high-speed passenger trains require a much smoother track than a heavily loaded cargo train, He said.
Other transportation experts have doubted the wisdom of running the two kinds of trains on one rail network.
"A heavily loaded cargo train's destructive power is the same as that of an overloaded vehicle on the expressway," Nanfang Weekly quoted an expert as saying.
However, He said railway authorities had adopted advanced technology to resolve any problems.
The country's rail system has reportedly benefited from several upgrades, including an advanced safety control system that includes 60-kg steel rails as well as the latest sleeper cars, the strongest switches available, signal system, and anti-friction devices.
He also said the ministry had set up systems for testing and monitoring, facilities management, and emergency response.
And for the first time, the ministry has installed an advanced track that relies on laser technology.
"I can say that China's railway infrastructure and rail track technology have both reached an advanced level," He said.
Impact on airlines
A highlight of the new rail system is the use of Electric Multiple Units (EMU), or multi-car electric trains, on intercity routes. These high-speed speed trains will connect cities in the three delta areas and major city clusters. The system also links regional centers, such as Beijing and Shanghai.
The development will cut travel time by 20 to 30 percent on average. Passenger transport capacity should increase by at least 18 percent, while cargo transport capacity should rise by 12 percent.
But Wu Wenhua, a researcher with the National Development and Reform Commission's Macro Economy Research Institute, said that because rail and air travel have competing advantages, the new trains might not have a big effect in terms of dividing the travel market.
"Railways have definite advantages in short and middle-distance transport, which is between 400 and 1,000 km," said Wu, who headed a research project on what effect the speedup would have on airlines.
"But the picture is not as optimistic as the Ministry of Railways would like to think because railways will not be able to compete with airlines in long-distance transport, usually 1,000 km and above."
Raw passenger figures for 2005 from the General Administration of Aviation in China and the Ministry of Railways show both train and air travel is increasing, and nine times as many people take the train as fly.
The road ahead
Two-hundred-fifty kph is the fastest speed that can be reached on the existing tracks, said Hu Yadong at a recent press conference.
Still, it is looking ahead by building passenger rail lines capable of running high-speed trains at 300 kph and beyond to further expand the country's railway transport capacity.
These faster passenger rail lines will mostly parallel existing rail lines, but will be used only for passenger transport.
For example, the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed passenger rail line has been designed to run trains at a speed of 300 kph, with a possible maximum speed of 350 kph.
Though the project has not started construction yet, Nanfang Weekly reported that the electric multiple units to be used on such lines are being built.
Once the fast cars are completed, passenger and cargo transportation will be divided and the railways' transport capacity can be further enhanced, the ministry said.
(China Daily, Xinhua News Agency April 18, 2007)