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China’s High-Speed Transition [Part 1]: The Barbaric Side of China’s Bullet Trains

China is transitioning to high-speed rail, which is providing a surprisingly “third world” passenger experience.

I stepped up to the ticket booth and ordered two tickets to go from Xiamen to Shenzhen on a high-speed D train. It was 10 days before my intended date of departure, which is usually more than enough time to get tickets. I was right, I could get tickets. But I couldn’t get seats.

Wuzuo — no seat — rail tickets are a punch to the gut for the traveler in China. Sure, you can get on the train, but you’re not going to be able to sit down. Instead, you’re going to endure the extreme discomfort of riding erect for your entire ride. If you’re lucky, you can find a little sliver of vacant wall space to lean up against at the end of a car in front of the toilets. To add further insult, you will pay just as much for this ride as passengers sitting comfortably in seats — who you can’t help but to look at in scorn.

chinese-bullet-train-passengers

On the old Chinese trains seatless passengers never seemed out of the ordinary: it’s plebeian transport, and plebeian transportation networks all over the world are typically over-stuffed with passengers. Go to India, you see trains so full that people are literally hanging on outside of them. All through South America you will find buses that have every inch of space plugged up with human flesh and luggage. The good thing about plebeian transport is that it’s cheap — so even if you get stuck standing for an extended journey at least you can bask in the fact that the drain on your body was not also enacted on your wallet.

But for the cars to be packed full of seatless passengers on what is one of the most technologically advanced, cutting edge train networks on the planet seems to be another story all together. China’s high-speed trains are middle/ upper class level transportation, they are comparatively costly, and everything about them gleams of sleek sophistication and modernity. The are in every way fully civilized . . . . except for the plebeian masses piled up on top of each other in the aisles without seats. 

I suppose the more people China’s railways can cram into each train the more money they can make back for their new high-speed rail network that has become known for running up financial loses across the country.

I was buying a ticket on the new high-speed rail line that stretches down the east coast. The Xiamen to Shenzhen leg of this line just opened up in December of 2013, and it has been filled beyond capacity every since. On each run, hundreds of passengers are crammed in without seats. They clog the area between cars; they form a fleshy gauntlet as they lean over seats in the aisles; body parts are strewn all over the floor — all at 200 km an hour.

I’ve been riding on the northern section of this line, from Shanghai to Xiamen, for a couple of years now, and prior to the beginning of 2014 it was always very uncrowded and easy to book a seat. Then a transition began happening and I’ve found myself standing in the aisles more often than I care to admit. To put it basely, it sucks. If I’m lucky I can run to the dining car when boarding, sit in a booth, and refuse to move. In other circumstances I have no strategy, I just go to wherever I can find enough space for myself and stand.

What this train line looked like in 2012:

Up until recently you only had to fear getting a wuzuo ticket if you bought it at the last minute or during a major public holiday, but now this is starting to change with the transition to the high-speed lines. 10 days early should have been more than enough advance time to get a seat. It wasn’t. Perhaps this is by design.

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China has now built the most advanced high-speed rail network the world has ever known. There is now 11,028 km of high-speed lines cutting a neat grid across the country. The plan is to have 18,000 km by the end of next year and 50,000 km by 2020. To show how quickly this network is growing, high-speed rail lines didn’t exist anywhere in China in 2000. The price tag for this growth has already extended beyond $300 billion.

Despite being the world’s most advanced rail system, China’s high-speed network is often the recipient of jeers from the international media. “Pricey tickets, they say, underscore China’s already huge rich-poor gap—and doom the trains to run half-empty, straining the national budget for years to come,” went an article on the Wall Street Journal. “Many newly added lines are making hefty losses and many are thought to be operating at under half capacity,” went a story on the Economist. The reported emptiness of China’s high-speed rail network has made it a global laughingstock, it has been used as yet another way for the international media to portray the country as a showy upstart trying to one-up the rest of the world but failing miserably.

Though there is some truth to these reports. When given the choice between newer, faster, high speed trains, or the older, cheaper, slower trains most Chinese chose to stick with what they already have. They would rather pay half the price and ride for twice as long. If placed side by side, China’s high-speed trains can’t commercially compete with their slower predecessors. Sure, they are technologically more advanced and many times faster, but the bulk of the population doesn’t want to be whisked away at 200 or 300 km an hour if it means they have to pay more for it.

A nearly empty high-speed train in April, 2013:

While I’ve been on many of these quasi-deserted trains and can confirm that they exist, I understand that they won’t be like this for long. China has a way to deal with this problem:

They will just phase out the old trains, giving passengers no other choice but to go high-speed.

It’s a very Chinese response: when persuasion fails resort to fiat.

chinese-high-speed-train-passengers

When the new high-speed rail line was opened up from Xiamen to Shenzhen in December, services on the slow trains were almost immediately discontinued. Traveling on this rail line no longer presents any choice, there are pretty much only high-speed trains now. At 150 RMB ($25) per ticket for the four hour ride, it’s not an expensive by global standards, but it’s far more than what passengers were paying for a hard seat on the slow trains. This is totalitarian capitalism at work, and the trains on this line are therefore packed beyond their capacity.

Though totalitarian capitalism works. Ridership on China’s high-speed trains is growing at 28% per year, rising from 61.2 million in 2007 to 530 million last year. By next year more people will be taking high-speed trains in China than those who take domestic flights in the USA.

When we look at China’s rail network, we’re not looking at an increase of consumer options, we’re looking at a transition. Large scale development projects are multi-tiered here, they are created in revolutionary bursts of construction, but social adaption comes at what can only be called an evolutionary pace. The Chinese don’t just build something one day and expect it to be economically flourishing the next, they carry out these projects on much longer timelines than how what it appears on the surface. Cutting out all slow trains on lines that are serviced by their high-speed cousins would create a large amount of social distress. Instead, they seem to be knocking off one line at a time, one slow train for a fast one, as the rail network slowly makes the transition to 100% high-speed.

Though this movement has not come without notice. “All public resources are going toward high-income groups,” a Wall Street Journal article quoted a Sina Weibo user. “It’s not that we’re opposed to high-speed rail. It’s just that part of the country’s public transport system should offer all levels of choice.”

We can now get from Beijing to Shanghai overland in under five hours, Xiamen to Shenzhen in four, but when you have to wade through seatless passengers in the aisles, have them leaning over your seat, or, if you are unfortunate enough, stand the entire time, how much social progress has been made? Sure, we will get there faster, but is it really worth it?

I recently told a South American friend about how hundreds of people who are standing seatless almost every time I’ve ridden the coastal route south of Shanghai this year, and he looked at me steadily and proclaimed, “That is very third world.”

“Yes,” I had to agree, “it’s barbaric.”

Filed under: China, Train Travel

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 89 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3490 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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