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Let the bullet trains fly
BY BOB LEE
Published: Jan 20 2011 9:12
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As the Spring Festival fast approaches, many Hong Kong people are booking flight or train reservations back to the mainland for holidays. The ministry of transportation estimated that 2.56 billion person-times would crisscross the country during the travel peak over the Chinese New Year.

I believe that no passenger can fail to notice the extraordinary achievement of China's railway system. For instance, last week, Guangzhou-Zhuhai intercity rail line was completed, making it the first step in an ambitious plan to build one of the world's most comprehensive intercity rail networks, linking all nine major cities across the Pearl River Delta (PRD) within a decade. The Yangtze River Delta and Bohai Rim Region have similar plans to the PRD's, which is more familiar to most Hong Kong people.

Not long ago, I attended a seminar organized by the Beijing-Hong Kong Academic Exchange Centre. He Huawu, the chief engineer of the Ministry of Railways of China, impressed me with detailed and vivid accounts of the technological innovation of China's railway.

China's breathtaking speed of developing its high-speed rail is truly a miracle. In 2007, when China embarked on developing its bullet train system, the country didn't have any railroads specially designed for high-speed trains, nor the technology to manufacture the locomotives needed. Its initial bullet trains were imported or built by Germany's Siemens, France's Alstom and Japan's Kawasaki. However, when rolling out its first high-speed railway between Beijing and Tianjin in 2008, China already had achieved the world's highest speed in terms of commercial transportation on railway. The milestone stunned the elite club of powerhouse railways that includes Japan, France and Germany. This is only a foretaste. By the end of last year, China had wowed the global community when a train set a world record of 486.1 km/h during a test run on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line. That's as fast as the cruising speed of a jet. In October this year, the new line will begin full operations with five times the current passenger capacity, shortening the travel time between the nation's political center and financial hub to less than five hours. Besides, China is now the first and only country to have commercial train service on conventional rail lines that can reach 350 km/h.

Professor He told me that according to the blue print drafted by the Central Government, the country's high-speed railways with speeds above 300 km/h will account for 75 percent of those built in the 12th Five-Year period from 2011 to 2015. The project will involve a whopping investment of five trillion yuan. By 2020, China's railway network will be ready to serve over 90 percent of its 1.3 billion population.

Powered by its cutting-edge technology, burgeoning ambition and vast market, China has continually burnished its newly earned title as the global rail leader. It now boasts the longest operating mileage and highest running speed in the world. Its ever-sharpening competitive edge can also be strongly felt beyond its boundary. CSR, a Chinese giant of railway equipment manufacture, while preparing to bid on as many as eight possible high-speed rail lines under consideration in the US, has cemented a deal with GE to establish a 50-50 joint venture to manufacture high-speed trains in California. The system will use China's technology. A railway linking Laos will start construction later this year. It will become part of a proposed high-speed rail network linking China and Singapore via Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. In addition, China this year is considering merging its two dominant State-owned locomotive and rolling stock groups, in a move that would create the largest company of its kind in terms of operating revenue.

Luckily, Hong Kong is able to share the fruit of the national bullet trains boom, thanks to the HK$66.9 billion budget approved by the Legislative Council, and the city's first inclusion in the country's 12th Five-Year Plan. The Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link (XRL), with trains running at a maximum speed of 350 km/h, will come into service in phases between 2011 and 2016. By the time the XRL taps into the nationwide, world-beating railway system, the bullet trains will take only 6 minutes to reach Shenzhen check point. Shanghai will be an eight-hour journey and Beijing 10 hours, offering many Hong Kong people working and living on the mainland a cheaper and more efficient alternative to air travel.

It is certain that the XRL will have "a revolutionary impact", reshaping the regional public transit landscape, changing the concept of time and space in the PRD and beyond. With the density of railways being close to those of Tokyo and London, all major cities of the PRD, one of the most vibrant metropolitan clusters in the world, are within a one-hour radius of Hong Kong. This situation enables us to make "living in the PRD, working in Hong Kong" a more practical choice. In sum, joining the national high-speed rail network means increased economic integration between the SAR and the mainland, the overall social benefits would go beyond the imagination.

The author is a staff writer.

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