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Millions of Chinese cram onto trains to make the annual pilgrimage home for the Lunar New Year holiday. It is a crowded and often uncomfortable experience that is rapidly being transformed by the country’s push into the world of high-speed rail.

China already has the globe’s longest bullet-train network, but it is ploughing 3.5 trillion yuan (US$556 billion) into expanding its railway system by 18 per cent over the next two years, to 150,000km, or more than 93,000 miles.

Much of that will be spent on extending the high-speed network westward, which includes parts of the country that ancient Chinese poet Li Bai once lamented were so mountainous that getting there was as challenging as reaching the sky.

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Almost 400 million people – that is more than the US population – will travel by train over the Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival. China’s factories and offices shut down for the week-long holiday, which unleashes the largest migration of humans on the planet. Many of the country’s 1.4 billion citizens return to their hometowns for family gatherings, or, increasingly, are taking the chance to be tourists both at home and abroad.

While the advent of cut-price flights has dimmed the appeal of rail travel in other parts of the world, in China it is on the rise. Last Spring Festival saw a record 10.96 million trips on one day, and for the first time more people took bullet trains than conventional ones, according to official data.

Almost non-existent in China a decade ago, high-speed rail has exploded, with more than half of the 25,000km network built between 2013 and 2017. The plan is to expand it by more than half by 2025, with eight main bullet-train lines running from east to west by 2030. China intends to have another eight main lines running from north to south as well.

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