Hyperloop dreams aside, America isn’t exactly leading the charge on High Speed Rail technology or planning. China opened its first HSR line in 2007 and, at the breakneck speed at which only China can build, continued to add another 5,800 miles to their network*. There are plans to nearly double that within the next two years. For reference, formal planning for the HSR line in California has been underway since the 1990s and has just entered the permitting process. Construction on the first segment may begin next year…maybe.
China has developed not only the most extensive high-speed rail network in the world but also the most affordable (relative to the income of the average worker). In most cities, Chinese planners also had the magnificent foresight to integrate the HSR terminals directly into subway system – meaning you don’t even have to leave the building to transfer from the departure gate of your HSR train to a subway stop that provides access to all corners of the city you’ve traveled to.
As I discovered on a recent trip from Beijing to Tianjin, this streamlined layout makes for an efficient and pleasant trip. By walking to the subway station from my home, transferring twice to reach the Beijing South Railway Station, and then hopping a HSR train, I was able to reach Tianjin in just under an hour. The Googles estimate that it would take 1 hr 52 min to travel the 89 miles from city center to city center by car under ideal traffic conditions.
Aside from saving drive time, there are a few advantages to HSR over driving a personal vehicle:
Cost: According to a fuel consumption calculator and using current Beijing gas prices and target fuel efficiency inputs, it would cost about 75 RMB to make the one-way trip. The estimated car depreciation incurred is about 52 RMB. By comparison, a one-way HSR ticket for the same trip costs just 66 RMB (first class!) and subway fares are 2RMB. Even if you take a taxi 20 km to your final destination (which would be a generous distance) for about 35 RMB, you’re still saving money by taking the train.
Time: As I mentioned above, from front door to the train station takes less than half the time of a driving trip under perfect traffic conditions – which, according to Beijingers, they have not seen since the early 1990s.
Predictability: Traffic jams are a part of daily life in Beijing and can easily add an hour to any trip. Trains, immune from traffic, plan their arrival times to the minute.
Productivity: HSR trains have Wi-Fi, restrooms, and a snack/bar car. Businesswomen can work on reports or take video conference calls while dads can take their energetic kids for a walk to get some milk tea. These activities are generally not advised while driving.
As usual, though, it’s the little things that tie it all together. Buying tickets is fast and cheap – you can do it online, in the station, or at vendor offices located throughout the city. The connected subway-HSR stations make for quick and easy transfers. And the little conveniences, like on-board Wi-Fi, roomy soft seats, and the ability to get a sandwich at will combine with the big-picture planning efforts to create a desirable alternative to driving.
** Distance from New York City to LA: 2789 miles