China's high-speed rail: Smooth ride, but bumps ahead
Beijing (CNN) -- As our train raced through the familiar scenery of rural and small-town China on this sunny Monday morning -- alternating between green farmland and red tiled-roofs, my Chinese seatmate proudly pointed to a coffee cup on the tray table.
"Look, it's not moving at all," he said. "Impressive, isn't it?"
An amazingly smooth ride indeed -- considering we were traveling at 300 kilometers (186 miles) an hour, more than double the average speed of America's fastest train.
The shiny CRH380 model we rode serves the new 1,318-kilometer (819-mile) Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway -- completed in just three years -- and cuts journey time between China's political center and commercial hub in half to under five hours.
Small wonder rail authorities had invited the entire foreign press corps for a preview trip a few days before the official launch on June 30.
Normally jaded reporters gushed over the futuristic bullet train with spacious and quiet cabins, as immaculately dressed attendants offered frequent drink and snack service.
"It's the longest high-speed line ever built in a single phase with the highest technological standards in the world," Vice Minister of Railways Hu Yadong told us early this month.
Now the world's second-largest economy, and flush with cash, China has been busy purchasing foreign technologies and constructing new rail lines. It boasts more than 8,300 kilometers (5,100 miles) of high-speed routes, turning a non-existent network to the world's longest in a few short years.
"It makes China more competitive," said Tom Callarman, a transportation professor at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. "It gives people more options to move where the jobs are, and also separates people from the freight so the freight can move more efficiently."
Callarman, an American, compares the two countries' commitment to high-speed rail as "night and day."
While the White House has earmarked $8 billion for projects for fiscal year 2012, the Chinese government plans to pour over $400 billion into its program in the next five years.
The massive investment and rapid construction have raised public doubts on the new lines' safety record and commercial viability, amid state media reports of empty trains running between inconvenient new stations in less-developed provinces.
The skeptics' voices became louder after the former railway minister -- a champion of high-speed rail -- was sacked for corruption early this year.
"It's not the faster, the better," said Sun Zhang, a railway professor at Tongji University in Shanghai and a long-time railway ministry consultant. "We have to take safety, economics and environmental impact into consideration.
"Strategically we can talk about a great leap forward in the industry, but tactically we have to do things step by step."
Already, Sun says the railway ministry has realized the importance of a diverse network that also includes regular trains and freight lines. He adds that authorities have slowed down some bullet trains -- including the newest route -- to make the service safer and cheaper.
At $85, a roomy second-class seat from Beijing to Shanghai costs less than half of a full-fare economy-class air ticket, almost guaranteeing the new service's popularity in China's richest region.
And although the United States may be no match to China in building fast rail, America still wins hands down in another fast category: Fast food. The breakfast served onboard China's latest high-speed train: Chicken burgers from KFC.
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