China’s High-Speed Trains Not Catching On with U.S. Visitors
By James Ruggia
August 08, 2012 10:30 PM
Though China is opening new high-speed train routes on an almost monthly basis, those trains have yet to catch on as a transit option for U.S. tourists. The China Daily, a press organ of the Chinese government, is reporting that a new high-speed rail line will link Beijing and Shenzhen in Guangdong province by the end of this year. The train will reduce the more than 1,400-mile journey to eight hours from its current 24 to 29 hours.
The train will call at Guangzhou, Changsha, Wuhan, Zhengzhou and Shijiazhuang. The Shenzhen-Wuhan section has been operating since April 1. The section between Zhengzhou and Wuhan will be finished by September, about half the journey from Shenzhen to Beijing. By 2015, the same line is scheduled to reach Hong Kong. Dedicated to creating the world’s top high-speed rail network, China has already laid more than 7,000 miles of high-speed track and plans to have some 10,000 miles of track by 2020.
All of this is a far cry from where the trains were before the country began investing billions of dollars into the upgrade. The popular tourism route from Shanghai to Suzhou to see its classical gardens and the Grand Canal have gone from six hours in a weary old coach to high-speed Maglev service to all of the Yangtze River Delta destinations. Hangzhou, with its majestic West Lake, is now an hour from Shanghai, Nanjing is about an hour, with Wuxi and Suzhou just beyond. In 2008, China opened its first high-speed line between Beijing and the Shandong Province port of Tianjin. Beijing to Shanghai can now be done in five hours, though the train operates at less than its full speed of 210 mph.
For all of the dazzling stories of China’s oncoming rail muscle, American tourists are not are using the trains. “Americans are only in China for a short amount of time,” said Yaping Xue, director of the China National Tourist Office’s New York office. “They need to get from city to city as quickly as possible. Besides, a lot of domestic Chinese travelers are using those trains and tour operators may have a hard time getting tickets.”
Last July, a high-speed train in Wenzhou briefly lost power and was hit from behind, causing many deaths and injuries. Though train accidents can happen everywhere trains operate, the reaction to this accident was different. Editorials in major newspapers questioned whether China was moving too swiftly. “We began using trains for awhile, but last year’s train accident created a feeling of uncertainty,” said Benson Wu, vice president of New York-based Victoria Cruises. “We got many phone calls from travelers and tour operators. The feeling was we should wait for awhile until the trains really stabilized.”
“When people ask for it, I book it for them,” said Johnson Yip, president of New Jersey-based Pacific Protours, “but I don’t see the advantage in using them. They aren’t cheap. Sometimes the air fares are cheaper. They work for business travelers.”
Max Chew, director of marketing for Los Angeles-based Ritz Tours, said the trains “are only for the most well-seasoned FITs and business travelers. American travelers are comfortable using trains in Europe because of the traditional bonds between Europe and America. It can work for sophisticated FITs and certain small groups, but otherwise, it’s not a tourism product yet.”
China isn’t the only Asian country that’s opening up to high-speed rail. Taiwan and Japan already have well-established networks and India selected eight high-speed corridors to be developed across the country. The 300-mile Mumbai-Ahmedabad route will likely be the first Indian bullet train, moving at 180 mph, reducing the time from its current seven hours to 2.5 hours. Other Indian high-speed corridors in waiting include Pune-Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Hyderabad-Dornakal-Vijayawada-Chennai, Howrah-Haldia, Chennai-Bangalore-Coimbatore-Trivandrum, Delhi-Agra-Lucknow-Allahabad-Patna, Delhi-Chandigarh-Amritsar and Delhi-Jaipur-Ajmer-Jodhpur.