Grass-roots Chinese prefer overnight train to problematic high speed rail

July 12, 2011Jing GaoNo Comments, , , , , ,

In a country as vast as China, traveling from one place to another one or two provinces away used to denote having to spend at least one night on the road. Now, with the ever-expanding high speed railway network that boasts the world’s highest average velocity, it whizzes from Shanghai to Beijing, which is about the distance between Washington D.C. and northern Florida, in five hours.

The overhaul and upgrade of the rail system has resulted in much fewer “slow” trains, which depart at night and arrive in the morning. Most overnight trains were superseded by the state-of-the-art bullet trains. Just one, compared with seven prior to June 30, is left to diversify people’s options. Dozens more accommodation trains that clickety-clack along the line were phased out.

However, the surviving “slow” train has not lost its appeal to those Chinese who do not have a bulging wallet. On an ordinary summer night, the train is fully packed, a sight normally only seen during the chunyun spring festival travel season.

The vestibule connecting two cars as small as 1 square meter (10 square feet) on the only overnight train between Shanghai to Beijing has eleven people.

The fully packed overnight train back and forth between Shanghai and Beijing


The reporter with Youth Daily approached more than 30 passengers on the train for their reasons of getting on this overnight trail, and found that they are principally students, backpackers and migrant workers who are budget-conscious. Many of them complain a high speed train ticket is too expensive, costing three times as much as that of an overnight train, which makes it so popular and crowded. Even though they can barely elbow their way, the low price is worth the torture.

On the other hand, the much-trumpeted high speed railway has faced one accusation after another.

At 4:45 p.m. on July 4, when the train G138  from Shanghai to Beijing was approaching Dezhou, Shandong province, a man smoking in a lavatory touched off the fire alarm. The train speed plunged from 310 km/h (190 mph) to almost zero, sparking concern that the train is too vulnerable to rise to an emergency.

On July 10, torrential rain in east China’s Shandong Province caused a power failure on the line from Beijing, affecting 19 trains and delaying thousands of passengers for up to three hours. The train G151 experienced a total blackout, despite earlier assurances that each train would have two hours of power available in the event of an emergency. Passengers had to wait in dark, ill-ventilated cars without air conditioning until power was restored some two hours later.

Today, a similar power failure brought another train, G2, to a complete halt in Suzhou宿州, Anhui province (not to be confused with Suzhou苏州, Jiangsu province). Even after the power was restored, the train plodded along the way, and was eventually two hours behind the schedule.

Both episodes were heavily reported to Sina Microblog by passengers with smartphones. One video shows that a train attendant was even reduced to tears by an angry passenger’s reprimand. “Don’t depend on tears to solve the problem,” the passenger said to the weeping girl. “She is doing her job. She is trying,” an English-speaking Caucasian woman mediated and comforted the girl.

An opinion poll posted onto Sina Microblog this afternoon shows that only 20% of 602 users that have responded to the poll so far, are still willing to give it a shot at the high speed train. The rest are either dubious, or have decided to switch to an alternate means of transportation. (Update: Compared with last time I checked, the latest poll result shows the public confidence has rebounded. Now the percentage has risen to 41%.)

However, quite a number of users explained in their comments that as other slower trains have been phased out and airfares are even more expensive, they are left with no other option than choosing the high speed train, which means they have been high-speed railroaded.

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