Riding from Beijing to Shanghai, the experience seems as good as any I'd had in Europe, and possibly even better, given the greater distances. Yes, the finish and the details look cheap compared to German or French trains, and the food is atrocious.
But the trains average 180 miles (290 kilometers) an hour. You rip through the countryside, stopping only twice before pulling into Shanghai's new Hongqiao station on time. As for the price, second class is $90, cheaper than all but the deepest discounted airline ticket, and the total travel time is only about an hour longer than by plane, once you factor in getting out to the airport, going through security, and so on.
The trains run every hour, providing what is essentially a commuter service between China's two greatest cities. Yet what lies between are vast, forgotten swaths of the country where most people live. They are served at best by slow, overcrowded trains. I experienced one going from Beijing to Datong, a city I first visited in 1984. The 200-mile (320-kilometer) run takes six hours-merely two hours faster than nearly 30 years before.
On a trip earlier this year, my train was crammed and filthy. The poorly designed ventilation system sucked fumes from the diesel locomotive straight into the wagons, and when we were barely out of Beijing, a sticky mix of water and urine already coated the toilet floor. But it was cheap: eight dollars for a second-class seat.
China's technocratic leaders have a deep belief that elites should lead the way, and high-speed rail is their vision for the future.
And in some ways, perhaps they are right. A recent report says that on many key high-speed lines, fares are covering debt costs, confounding skeptics who said high-speed trains were purely prestige projects.
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