Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gentrifying the Rails

Riding the train is the great equalizer.

If you buy your ticket too late, you could be riding in cattle class, or worse, standing.

But one good thing is that your ride could soon be less tedious.

China is upgrading its railway system by installing more high-speed trains in the network.

Last year the Beijing-Tianjin link was upgraded before the Olympics, shuttling people from the Capital to the port city in half an hour compared to the one hour previously.

And starting April 1, passengers will be able to travel to other destinations faster.

The Hefei-Wuhan, and Hefei-Nanjing lines will run with bullet trains running 250 kph. It will take less than three hours to get from Hefei to Nanjing, when it currently takes eight now.

And from Wuhan to Shanghai the time has halved to one hour and 45 minutes.

Another line that will seriously cut travel time is the Shijiazhuang-Taiyuan railway, reducing the travel time between Hebei and Shanxi provinces from five hours to one.

The shorter times has forced bus companies and airlines to slash their ticket prices too.

However, time is money.

The Ministry of Railways has set the prices for a sleeper ticket from Beijing to Shanghai or Beijing to Hangzhou to 600-700 RMB ($87.83-$102.47).

Those tickets on regular trains sell for only 300-400 RMB. Seats are less than 100RMB.

While it's understandable that bullet trains mean higher ticket prices, not everyone can afford them. It may force more people to take perilous buses instead and there have been many cases of bus accidents due to speeding or weather.

The government should really be raising people's incomes first before increasing ticket prices especially in today's economic climate.

However, Zhang Shuguang, chief of the transportation department of the ministry doesn't worry about trains that aren't full and spins it this way:

"Passengers will see more half-empty trains than crowded ones in the future, thanks to the progress of longer railways and better and faster trains."

Sounds like the government is gentrifying the rail network rather than providing better, more efficient customer service.

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