How Faster Trains Draw China’s Cities Ever Closer
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2017-09-21 11:35:41

Thursday’s 8:01 a.m. train from Nanjing to Beijing was the start of a new era for China’s high-speed rail network. The string of cars darted north at 350 kilometers per hour — the world’s highest operating speed — for the first time since 2011, when a railway corruption scandal led to a 300 kph cap.

For now, only the 14 high-speed trains that run on the railway between Beijing and Shanghai will see speed increases. Throughout history, the railroad between China’s two biggest cities has been at the frontier of fast. Since the first large-scale speed increases in 1997, the time it takes to go from Beijing to Shanghai has been reduced from nearly seventeen hours to around four and a half hours. Other cities in eastern China, too, are now just a few hours away from the capital.

Travel times between Beijing and the provincial capitals of East China, relative to other provincial capitals (gray lines). By Qin Zhaoying and Liu Chang/Sixth Tone

Travel times between Beijing and the provincial capitals of East China, relative to other provincial capitals (gray lines). By Qin Zhaoying and Liu Chang/Sixth Tone

Over the past decade, most time reductions have come from the large-scale expansion of China’s high-speed rail network. By the end of 2016, the total operating length of China’s high-speed rail system had reached 22,000 kilometers — long enough to stretch halfway around the world.

As a result, traveling from Beijing to far-flung cities across the country has become less time-consuming. Guangzhou in the south, for example, is now much “closer” to the capital, as are other cities that lie along the track.

Travel times between Beijing and cities on the Beijing-Guangzhou line, relative to provincial capitals not along that route (gray lines). By Qin Zhaoying and Liu Chang/Sixth Tone

Travel times between Beijing and cities on the Beijing-Guangzhou line, relative to provincial capitals not along that route (gray lines). By Qin Zhaoying and Liu Chang/Sixth Tone

Relative to other parts of the country, travel to Northeast China has improved the least. Development of high-speed railways has been slower in this region, and rail travel was better there to begin with, in part due to colonial powers Russia and Japan.

Travel times between Beijing and the provincial capitals of Northeast China, relative to other provincial capitals (gray lines). By Qin Zhaoying and Liu Chang/Sixth Tone

Travel times between Beijing and the provincial capitals of Northeast China, relative to other provincial capitals (gray lines). By Qin Zhaoying and Liu Chang/Sixth Tone

In 1949, the year the People’s Republic of China was founded, traveling from Beijing to Zhengzhou about 600 kilometers to the south, took 10 hours longer than traveling from Beijing to Shenyang — an equal distance to the north. Now, however, a trip to Zhengzhou takes just two and a half hours, while traveling to Shenyang takes four.

Travel times between Beijing and China’s provincial capitals, grouped by distance from Beijing. By Qin Zhaoying and Liu Chang/Sixth Tone

Travel times between Beijing and China’s provincial capitals, grouped by distance from Beijing. By Qin Zhaoying and Liu Chang/Sixth Tone

All graphical data from “National Train Timetable of China” (1959-2016) and “Train Timetable, Vol. 4” (Nov. 15, 1949).

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: China’s newest bullet train, the Fuxing, travels to Shanghai from a station in Jinan, Shandong province, Sept. 21, 2017. VCG)