Dispatches from The Middle Kingdom: Planes, **Trains**, and Automobiles

Posted On: Thursday - September 7th 2023 8:54AM MST
In Topics: 
  China  Peak Stupidity Roadshow

(Continued from **Planes** and **Planes-II** of our Dispatches from The Middle Kingdom: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles series.)

That's 215 mph.*

Due to my having a window seat on both of our Chinese high-speed rail (I'll just use HSR from here on) trips, I didn't get up much. That means that I don't think I would have missed any speed higher than that shown on the display at the front of the rail car. Generally, we went at and no more than 300 km/hr = 185 mph, at least on one of the runs, and I believe that was the limit for that line.

Besides Maglev trains (more on them, actually "it" below), this is at the top of the speed range that HS trains in Japan, France or elsewhere get to. It's not AMAZING in today's day and age - one can go faster on a maglev train. However, the construction of these lines calls for lots of elevated track and tunnels (to avoid steep slopes and high derivatives of slope, sharp curves), no grade crossings, seamless track, and I'm sure other higher quality railroad features than one needs for 80 mph freight trains. What's amazing is that within a decade or so, China has built this complete network of HSR lines, that they are highly used, that they likely can pay for themselves, and just that the whole thing WORKS.

That's a shorter time period than it took for Americans to build the bulk of the Interstate Highway system, very advanced for its time, with cruder technology (I'm thinking of the many long tunnels in China here, requiring lots of impressive machines). It's an apples-to-oranges comparison, but still, I am greatly impressed by the sheer amount of concrete in the millions of high columns and track support beam alone. Then, there are those tunnels - with mountainous terrain almost covering the Middle Kingdom. This is no white elephant.

To explain that, let me note that on the shorter run, 4 hours from Peking to Shanghai**, I attempted to estimate how many opposite direction trains we passed. A few times, I got 8 minute intervals, but some were closer to 4 or 5 minutes. If we take 8 per hour we get 32 trains, meaning they are separated by ~ 25 miles. (This made me wonder if there is a "siding" of some sort within that interval, or some way to get a broken train out of the way, if need be.*** Push it over and into the ravine below and bury it? Hmmmm...)

I might be slightly off on my basic numbers - cars in the train, and seats per car (2 abreast) - but believe it was 10 cars with 80 seats per, so there's an 800 passenger capacity. Therefore with 8 per hour on the line, they can move, let's say 100,000 to 150,000 people in a 24 period if they needed to. (If they needed to, they'd probably tighten up the spacing too.) That's pretty amazing. Airlines don't and CAN'T carry nearly as many.

Since I'm comparing these trains to airline service, let me state that the rides were extremely smooth and quiet, with none of that clickety clack and almost imperceptible accelerations other than during the approach and exit to/from the stations. The trains were roughly 80-90% full. In fact, for one of the trips, we were lucky to get tickets at all due to capacity. The seats were like coach airline seats with another foot of pitch - a big deal, of course! One could get up to go to the snack bar, bathroom, or walk the length of the train.

That is the station in the big city where we left for Peking. (I think. If not, this was Peking south.) It was packed. The security set-up has close to the airport level of annoyance. National ID cards, passports for foreigners, facial recognition, all that are part of it. One lines up, best Chinese people can give it a go, by the track number, and the boarding is done in 10-15 minutes. They need to, as each track waiting line, well it must be for a pair of 2 tracks, has a list of trains going out very frequently.

The ticket prices were cheap. We paid in the neighborhood of $60 for the Peking-Shanghai run and something like double that for the much longer run. Can these trains make money? I don't know if they are right now or not, but there's plenty of room to bump up ticket prices, IMO, as they are nowhere near airline prices. These trains really do compete pretty well with the airlines, at least on a run like the 4 hour one. Something from our old post Trains in the Orient vs. America comes in here. These huge train stations are not necessarily right downtown. Many can't be, I suppose - no way to get that much track and land in now. However, one can take subways to and from, so it's not like driving to the big hub airport with that parking and hassle.

That leads right into the part about the one MagLev train. This one goes from the big Shanghai train station - which is IN the city of Shanghai, the Pudong District (not what you're thinking!), but not what you might call downtown - to the airport. I rode this myself a couple of times years ago. What I remembered right is "8". Well, 8 is the lucky number, but was that the price or the duration of the ride? It was both. 50 RMB is ~ 8 bucks right now, and the ride took 8 minutes. We did only the same speed the other trains did 300 km/hr. I thought I'd remembered wrong, but, upon looking this up just now, on some of the runs, it gets up to 431 km/hr = 265 mph. With the low ridership we saw this time and others, and from the numbers I looked up, this one IS a white elephant. It's a fun white elephant though!

Back to the subject of the regular HSR in China, what I need to do is put up more pictures. (I've got plenty of video too.) I think I'll make another post with some. It'll not be so much about the trains, but about what one can see of China.

Your Peak Stupidity blogger may sound like pundit Fred Reed or some 10 y/o kid here. I am not impressed so much with the speed, the comfort, and the efficiency. What I'm impressed with is what you can see below. This is not some one-off. This is life there now:

I had to blow up that legend for readability after shrinking the image. I am sorry the city names are hard to see. Here is a bigger, clearer version of this map.

* Yes, I know, 213.75 mph, but Peak Stupidity has a thing for round numbers.

** The straight line distance is 665 miles, but, for terrain and possibly land-use reasons, the web says it's an 820 mile trip. With a time enroute of 4:20 or so, that works out to 305 km/hr, AVERAGE!

This was an express train, so we may have stopped only once or twice, if at all. (This whole trip is blurring together. We rode another train on a different route, which did have a couple of dozen stops.)

*** That brings up merging and forking on these HS tracks. How much of that do they have? It's got to be a bit more sophisticated than that on ordinary track.

Saturday - September 9th 2023 7:13AM MST
PS: I didn't mean I don't know all of the - "Chattanooga Choo-Choo", but of course! There's a station of the old "VOR" ground navigation stations near Chattanooga that's named "Choo-Choo. They got creative at times. One out in Wyoming or something is called "Crazy Lady".

"You're cleared direct Crazy Lady." Sounds kind of weird, and smart-ass remarks come with abundance. Now, the stations are not so necessary, as it's GPS that actually takes one over that station. If GPS dies - in a war - well, that's another post I've been thinking about ...
Saturday - September 9th 2023 7:09AM MST
PS: SafeNow, it may be a bit of an optical illusion. OTOH, I should have written 8" of pitch, rather than a whole foot - still very much better than in coach on any airliner. I'd say the width was somewhere between airline coach and 1st class. The aisle was perhaps slightly wider than those planes with the slightly more spacious aisles - Airbus 320-series?

Hmmm, if we had the interior width dimension - pretty hard to find, I'm guessing - then a 3 and 3 airline cabin dimension - probably easier to find - we could probably figure this out exactly.

The snack bar wasn't in a club car as on the Amtrak trains (unfortunately, those are all I remember pretty much). These one made use of the rest of the car with seats - all but that 12' for so in length, with the aisle going on one side by the wall. It's not like old America. I can, in fact, remember, as per "City of New Orleans", "playing card games in the club car, penny a point, ain't no one keepin' score", except it was for M&M's with a young lady and her kid brother long ago... how I remember right now that they were headed to Prince, W. Virginia, is amazing!

The snack bar ladies were A-OK. I knew no Chinese, but got someone to help at one point, because it was a question, not just something that I could point to. I DID pay cash, both on principle, but to see if one even could. The Chinese people - not all, but mostly - would whip out their damn phones with WeChat and scan QR codes - so convenient, yet...
Saturday - September 9th 2023 6:58AM MST
PS: SafeNow, my favorite train song, perhaps because I haven't yet listened to the others you gave us, is "City of New Orleans". Arlo Guthrie did a superb job singing it, but he didn't write the song. It was written by recently deceased Steve Goodman, who also wrote one of my favorite Jimmy Buffett-sung songs, which is "Banana Republics".
Friday - September 8th 2023 10:20PM MST
Trains in the American song and movie culture - - recommendations:
1. Tex Beneke’s Chattanooga Choo Choo…a two-minute Youtube.
2. “Westbound Number Nine” by Flaming Ember. Great song, but the main thing is the song’s perspective… of a guy sitting on a rock on Boulder Creek waiting for the train to pass, and then he says “my mind catches a ride.” That line came to mind for me when my mind caught a ride on M’s train.
3. “The Station Agent” it’s a superb fairly recent movie about train culture and is charmingly offbeat in the spirit of Local Hero. Amazon prime carries this. I guarantee you will like this. if you don’t enjoy it I will refund the rental price to you when we meet at the internment camp. Family-friendly..guys, wives, kids.
Friday - September 8th 2023 2:22PM MST
Mr. M, you write that the seat is equivalent to coach with an extra foot of pitch. But in your photo the width of the seat resembles not coach but first class maybe it is an optical illusion of photography. Is the snack car someplace where you can hang out, sort of a lounge car? My suspicion is you buy your food and get reprimanded the heck out. In fact my stereotyped notion of China is that every place you might go, you do the thing you’re supposed to do there and you get the heck out. (Except perhaps Pudong)
Thursday - September 7th 2023 4:04PM MST
PS: "As long as China maintains its sense of the Chinese nation..." I'm pretty sure they will. They can be stupid at times - see the Cultural Revolution - but they aren't THAT stupid!
The Alarmist
Thursday - September 7th 2023 12:25PM MST

Somewhere in the ‘90s, the NYC MTA paid a half million dollars for a new logo design. It was the letters MTA next to a dark circle. People were supposed to see a train coming out of or going into a tunnel. For me it looked like money being thrown into a black hole ... Money Thrown Away.

The NYC subway became a patronage system for black New Yorkers, who, unlike their Italian predecessors, saw no value in preserving its long term value so they could perpetually milk the system. Few Africans think more than a generatuion behind, unless, of course, it is to shake down Whitey for reparations, much less a generation or two ahead.

As long as China maintains its sense of the Chinese nation, they won’t have our multi-culti Western guilt and the problems that arise from it.
Thursday - September 7th 2023 9:43AM MST
PS: Yes, that may very well be a problem, M. I experienced some of that on this trip regarding housing.

Regarding your last paragraph, that's a factor, but another one is that's is often lots easier to start anew on a project than to maintain the old stuff, and who knows how soon this will get "old".

For an example, take the NYC subway, please. It's something like a century and quarter old, maybe over that! Like working on a 75 y/o house, whenever you work on one thing, you see other stuff that you really wish you hadn't seen.

"Chinese vs. American infrastructure - "From Scratch" vs. Repair modes":

Thursday - September 7th 2023 9:27AM MST
Wait 10 years and see if those tracks and trains are maintained.

If the Chinese keep them maintained, then they will have inherited the attitude of "Martha's Sons".

On the other hand, if they don't maintain them, people will be killed when they derail. Will we find out? Probably not.

But then they will have come down to the usual level of politicians everywhere - where they want new stuff to put their names on, and old stuff doesn't get maintained, because there's no publicity (if it does, there's lots of graft associated with it).
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