I found my seat on the Chinese bullet train, chucked my baggage into the overhead shelf, and settled into my seat. There was no seat belt!
We were going to accelerate to 250 miles per hour and no seat belts!!!
We did. The sleek white aerodynamic train crept out of town on conventional tracks at conventional speed...about 55 miles per hour. Outside the city, the train moved onto a special seemless track that was supported on concrete pylons that elevated the rails from 20 to 50 feet above the countryside.
Acceleration was so gradual that passengers could move around in the aisle. An electronic board at the front of each car flashed our speed as we accelerated to 150, 250, then 350 kilometers per hour. This is the speed an airliner takes off and lands, yet the acceleration and later deceleration were gradual; no G-force ever pushed me back into my seat.
My luggage sat firmly on the open overhead shelves. No latching bins. Just a lip on the shelf. The train streaked straight as an arrow with no sideways pitching as in an airplane. The elevated rails resembled the Roman aquaducts that carried water from the mountains to Rome, cutting through tunnels and forming level bridges across valleys.
The poles that suspended the overhead electric lines whipped past my window faster, and faster, until I could no longer see them. Upon slowing down, they reappeared again.
China is expanding this train system between Beijing and the provincial capitals, and from each capital to every other capital. My trip was between provincial capitals, a distance similar to Topeka to Indianapolis, almost 500 miles. That would take ten hours to drive. This train took a little over 2 hours. It could be less but we would make 4 stops for exactly one minute each: 30 seconds to unload a few passengers and 30 seconds to take on new.
Track for the newest bullet train is being laid from Beijing to Shanghai and will be in operation next year. That trip, 11 hours by car or bus, will take just 4 hours. Each train will carry 1000 passengers and there will be 4 to 6 a day. China’s news teams interviewed people on the street for their opinion. In uncharacteristic fashion, for a culture that does not discuss romance publicly, some suggested the new train would be a benefit for young student lovers, studying at elite universities in these distant cities, who could spend the saved 7 hours to better advantage.
This train, the “gao tye hwo che,” or “high special” train is faster than the European and Japanese trains that remain at ground level. This is Chinese technology and they are exporting it to other countries, including a proposed train in California.
The real take home message is that the first day that this bullet train went into operation between Xi’an and Zhengzhou was the last day the airlines flew between those capitals. China’s planned economy made sure passengers switched and the train was full from day one. It takes one-seventh the energy to move a person by this train, compared to an airline, one-fifth the energy as by car.
And my train ticket was $40, substantially less than an airline ticket.
Meanwhile, we in Kansas piddle around over whether we will expand AMTRAK service. And complain that it will take a public subsidy. Unwilling to abandon our fuel-hogging cars and airlines, we dither under the illusion that our market competition will find the best way.
And...we accuse China of taking no measures to curb pollution.
No time is wasted. The bullet train is moving all the time. If there are 30 stations between Beijing and Guangzhou, just stopping and accelerating again at each station will waste both energy and time.
A mere 5 min stop per station (elderly passengers cannot be hurried) will result in a total loss of 5 min x 30 stations or 2.5 hours of train journey time!
The video below is of the proposed (not currently operational) system for transfer without stopping.
How it works (read then view the movie - (the commentary is in mandarin though!):
1. For those who are boarding the train: The passengers at a station embark onto to a connector cabin way before the train even arrives at the station. When the train arrives, it will not stop. It just slows down to pick up the connector cabin which will move with the train on the roof of the train.
While the train is still moving away from the station, those passengers will board the train from the connector cabin mounted on the train's roof. After fully unloading all its passengers, the connector cabin will be moved to the back of the train so that the next batch of outgoing passengers who want to alight at the next station will board the connector cabin at the rear of the train roof.
2. For those who are getting off: As stated, after fully unloading all its passengers, the connector cabin will be moved to the back of the train so that the next batch of outgoing passengers who want to alight at the next station will board the connector cabin at the rear of the train roof. When the train arrives at the next station, it will simply drop the whole connector cabin at the station itself and leave it behind at the station. The outgoing passengers can take their own time to disembark at the station while the train has already left. At the same time, the train will pick up the incoming embarking passengers on another connector cabin in the front part of the train's roof. So the train will always drop one connector cabin at the rear of its roof and pick up a new connector cabin in the front part of the train's roof at each station.