Sep 25, 2013

    High-speed trains transform China

    THE cavernous rail stations for China's high-speed trains were nearly deserted when it opened less than four years ago.

    Not any more. Now, practically every train ticket is sold out, although trains leave for cities all over the country every several minutes.

    China's high-speed rail system now carries nearly twice as many passengers each month as the country's domestic-airline industry does, with traffic growing 28 per cent a year for the last several years.

    The trains hurtle along at 300kmh and are smooth, well-lit, comfortable and almost invariably punctual, if not early.

    Business executives like Ms Zhen Qinan ride bullet trains to meetings all over China to avoid airport delays.

    "High-speed trains seemed like a strange thing but, now, they're just part of our lives," she said.

    China's high-speed rail system has emerged as an unexpected success story.

    Economists and transport experts cite it as one reason for the country's continued economic growth when other emerging economies are faltering.

    But it has not been without costs, such as high debt, the relocation of many people and a deadly accident in 2011.

    The corruption trials this summer of two former senior rail-ministry officials have also cast an unfavourable light on the bidding process for the rail lines.

    The high-speed rail lines have, without a doubt, transformed China, often in unexpected ways.

    For example, Chinese workers are now more productive.

    A paper for the World Bank by three consultants this year found that Chinese cities connected to the high-speed rail network are likely to experience broad growth in worker productivity.

    Mr Gerald Ollivier, a World Bank senior transport specialist in Beijing, said: "What we see very clearly is a change in the way a lot of companies are doing business."

    Companies are opening research-and-development centres in more glamorous cities like Beijing and Shenzhen, with abundant supplies of young, highly educated workers, and having them make frequent day trips to factories in cities with lower wages and land costs, like Tianjin and Changsha.

    Businesses are also customising their products more through frequent meetings with clients in other cities, part of a broader move up the ladder towards higher-value-added products.

    Mr Li Qingfu, the sales manager at Changsha Don Lea Ramie Textile Technology, which is an exporter of women's clothing, said that he used to travel twice a year to Guangzhou, the commercial hub of south-eastern China.

    He now goes almost every month by bullet train.

    He said: "More frequent access to my client base has allowed me to pick up on fashion changes in colour and style more quickly. My orders have increased by 50 per cent."