Riding the rails in China

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, August 21, 2021
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Aerial photo taken on July 6, 2020 shows a railway bridge of the Anshun-Liupanshui railway in southwest China's Guizhou province. [Photo/Xinhua]

The bipartisan infrastructure bill of U.S. President Joe Biden just passed by the Senate is kindling some Americans' dreams of taking a journey across the country via high-speed rail.

Netizens have been tweeting images of a fantasized high-speed rail network that links New York City to Los Angeles. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg retweeted the image and commented, "Gen Z is dreaming big."

Unfortunately, they are indeed dreaming. The dream of high-speed rail crisscrossing America will remain a fantasy. For various reasons, including its low population density, the U.S. is fundamentally ill-suited for high-speed rail. 

Add in political gridlock, and even those stretches on the East and West Coasts that might be able to sustain such lines will be axed by obstructionist politicians who oppose government spending on infrastructure and want to see Biden fail. Republican politicians even blocked Obama's attempt to merely increase the speed of some lines. 

I, too, love the idea of rail travel, but for me it's no fantasy – a memory, rather. I studied abroad in China a decade ago, and enjoyed the luxury of traveling on the country's rail network for two months during one summer.

Even ten years ago, China already had more miles of high-speed rail track than the U.S. by orders of magnitude. It has only continued to expand since, growing by 29,000 kilometers, with tracks stretching right across the country. The journey from China's eastern coastal area to Yunnan province, that took me 32 hours in 2013, only takes 11 hours nowadays.

Even slower routes were, and are, still fast and comfortable. During the six years I lived in China, I often took the old green train from Nanjing to Zhuzhou, Hunan province. I stepped on in the evening and woke up the next morning in the land of spicy food. The old ladies on the Hunan route were so friendly, and enthusiastic to talk to a young foreigner. They offered snacks of duck tongue, sunflower seeds, and melons.

In the summer of 2011, I went from Sichuan to Hunan to Guilin, by bus through the Dong ethnic villages of southeastern Guizhou, back to the rails to make it to Kunming, and eventually to Dali and Lijiang. Because of the vast transportation infrastructure of China, I was able to see many different kinds of scenery and culture. 

For example, the seemingly endless karst mountains of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region that resemble a forest of oversized stone bamboo; the terraced rice fields of Guizhou; and the snow-capped peaks and high alpine lakes of Yunnan. 

But some of the best times I had traveling were actually onboard the train. I would sit in the dining car for hours looking at the passing scenery, imagining what it might be like to live in the small towns. I met some friends in the dining car and even went on journeys with some of them.

Ten years later, I am still nostalgic for such carefree days. There was a night train ride in June from Guiyang to Kunming where the college students returning home, who filled most of the car, played guitar and drank beer all night. I stayed in hostels and spent all day exploring scenic and cultural sites.

Vagabonding for months with no destination and no timetable will always be a treasured memory. Take a stroll through the Dali Ancient City and you'll see so many young Chinese using the trains and buses like I did. However, the rail network provides real economic benefits to China aside from benefiting the self-indulgent cultural travelers. They connect second-tier and third-tier cities to global hubs. They even lessen economic disparities.

MarcoPolo, the Paulson Institute's think tank, wrote this year: "So was it worth it? Our short answer: from an economic standpoint, it was worth it. Based on a careful cost and benefit analysis and using a framework similar to the World Bank's, we estimate that the HSR network confers a net benefit of $378 billion to the Chinese economy and has an annual ROI of 6.5%."

For me, China's rail network allowed me to fulfil my dreams of adventure and travel. But its real value is in how it helps make life easier for everybody. For example, the person from the countryside who is now able to take a trip to Guangzhou for a job interview; the worker, who because of new economic benefits, doesn't need to go so far to find a job; and finally the daughter who can get home for Spring Festival in a few hours instead of a dozen hours.

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


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