A century ago, trains were a major form of transportation in the United States. But with the ascendancy of personal cars—our trains have faded to provide transportation for freight, important but ignored. To imagine life if trains had remained central to American transportation, we can look to China’s modern system.
China’s trains come with an alphabet soup of variations: G, C, D, Z, T, K, L and Y. These appear on your ticket in front of the number of the route. In China, you must present your official ID (or passport) to purchase a ticket. That ticket will then be checked for your name and ID number on the train. There can never be any “ticket scalping.”
Regular trains will have no letter, just a number. They stop at every village along their route. They have “hard seats” and are very cheap, serving poorer rural folks. The common “pu kuai” trains sometimes lack air-conditioning, while the slowest and oldest “Pu ke” trains always lack air-conditioning. During Chinese Spring Festival, special L-trains are brought into operation to enable this largest annual human migration.
K-trains, standing for “kuai che” or “fast train,” are regular trains that never exceed 120 kilometers per hour, skipping some small villages but having more stops than the T-trains. K-trains have air-conditioning and have both hard and soft seats, and hard and soft sleeper train berths.
A “hard” seat or berth lacks any cushioning and is cheaper than “soft” seats and berths. Hard sleepers have six bunks per compartment and the compartment is open to the side walkway. Soft sleepers have four bunks, and a door separates the compartment from the walkway. When I travel on a hard sleeper, I sleep with my head on top of my backpack as a pillow, although I have never experienced any theft.
The T-train is an express train, standing for “Te bye kuai” or “very fast train” in Chinese. They make fewer stops, and link major cities. Their highest speed is 140 kilometers per hour and they also have the soft-sleeper, soft-seat, hard-sleeper and hard-seat options.
Direct express or Z-trains (“Zhi da”) have a maximum speed of 160 kilometers per hour and do not stop between major cities. They only have soft-seats and soft-sleepers.
The C-train, standing for Chengji, is a hi-speed electric multiple-unit train that runs on the ground between nearby cities, such as Tianjin-to-Beijing.
D-trains or “Dong Che” are electric bullet trains, sometimes called “He Xie Hao” or “harmony trains. They are very fast but their tracks remain at ground level with fences to prevent animals straying onto the tracks. The designation of the train as “D” is more of an indication of this ground-level speed limit, for the D-trains can also move up onto pylons and increase their speed to 350 kilometers per hour.
By far the most futuristic trains worldwide are their G-trains or “Gao tye,” meaning high and very fast.
They are also electric, sleek, white and aerodynamic because they are the fastest trains in the world. Moving faster than aircraft take off or land, they essentially are wingless aircraft on rails. While Japan’s bullet trains were first, and Europe likewise developed bullet trains, those predecessors stayed at ground level and were limited in speed by safety factors. China surpassed that technology decades ago and now has the cutting edge high-speed train technology in the world.
Costing half the price of a plane ticket, the gao tye slows down and comes to ground level at the main train station at the center of a city. Still the trip can be faster and more convenient than traveling city-to-airport to get on planes. China builds these hi-speed trains on high-rise pylons across the countryside to join every provincial capitol to every other, and they are continuing to expand this infrastructure to join all other major cities. By “going electric,” China’s new trains are a major part of cleaning up their environment that has always been heavily polluted due to overpopulation.
By 2020, China will have invested nearly $250 billion modernizing its railroad infrastructure. According to the U.S. publication Railway, Burlington Northern/Santa Fe (BNSF) finds its fortune closer tied to the China economy: “[U.S.] gross domestic product (GDP) is not the most relevant issue for us,” according to the BNSF CEO, but “How much more goods are going to be produced in China is really more important than whether or not we have 3.1 percent GDP or 4 percent or 2.7.” Since China entered the WTO in 2001, BNSF imports through the West Coast ports had increased 71 percent. China imports 75% of the world’s soybeans, and large amounts of corn and wheat. That is moved to ports in the U.S. and Brazil by their railroads, and when it is off-loaded in China, it is moved inland by China’s trains.
China’s investment in their massive train infrastructure will take many decades to pay back. Therefore it is only possible in a planned economy that takes a long view. China’s amazingly efficient train system would be an impossibility in profit-driven, short-term, get-rich-quick America. We chose a path based on every person having their own car. To see the path we did not take, based more heavily on railroads, you will have to visit China.