Engines of Growth

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Photograph by Michael Christopher Brown for TIME

People get ready There's a bullet train a-coming. China plans to double the size of its high-speed network in two years

When I first rode the rail line between the eastern Chinese cities of Suzhou and Shanghai in 1996, it felt as if the passengers were fleeing a disaster. Hundreds jammed through the station doors in Suzhou and sprinted for the train. With bags held high or balanced on bamboo poles, they choked the entrances to the cars, jostling for a prime spot on board. Those like me who didn't have the gumption to do the same were left to stand or sit on the floor. I found some room between cars, put my bag down and perched on top of it. The metal floor had rusted through in spots, and I could see the tracks below. For much of the two-hour, 100-km ride, I could smell the tracks too. The train's toilets emptied directly onto them.

Today, rolling suitcases have replaced bamboo poles as the primary means of hauling loads, and the walk across Suzhou station's platforms is a leisurely stroll. My seat is assigned, so there's no need to battle for position. I find my spot and slip into the comfortable reclining chair. The next passenger listens to music on his new Nokia phone as the train accelerates. It feels as though we've hardly left the station when an announcement tells us to prepare for the next stop, Shanghai. When the digital speedometer in the car hits 231 km/h, the Japanese businessmen sitting across from me look up from their laptops and nod in approval. The trip takes 42 minutes and, thankfully, I don't smell a thing.

In early July, an even faster line went into service linking Shanghai to Suzhou and Nanjing with trains that can run up to 350 km/h. That sort of relentless upgrading is typical of Chinese rail these days. Of all the infrastructural improvements this striving nation has made in the past three decades, perhaps the most impressive are those to the railway system. In 1981 China had 54,000 km of track; by the end of this year it will have nearly doubled that to 100,000 km. More importantly, China has gone from having one of the world's largest rail networks to also having one of the best. It covers some of the world's most difficult terrain — like the Tibetan Plateau, where workers laid track over a 5,000-m pass and 550 km of permafrost to link the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with the rest of China. The system has also seen a steady increase in average speed, from 48 km/h in 1993 to 70 km/h in 2007. On some routes, averages are phenomenal. The journey from the city of Wuhan in central China to Guangzhou in the south is now covered at 313 km/h. It's the fastest average speed in the world for a passenger train and cuts the trip time from 10 and a half hours to three hours.

Chinese authorities aren't satisfied, however. Spending on railroad construction increased 80% over 2008 totals to reach $88 billion in 2009. It will climb to $120 billion this year and exceed $700 billion over the next decade. The most ambitious focus of that investment is the expansion of China's high-speed passenger rail. Right now, China is the world's leader with 6,552 km of high-speed tracks (defined as those that can carry trains at speeds over 200 km/h). It plans to double that distance in two years.

At a time when infrastructure in the U.S. and Europe is aging fast, China's railways may give it a competitive edge over the world's leading economies. Rail would move travelers around the country in large numbers at unprecedented speeds. Smaller cities in the interior would grow in importance as ease of movement allows for longer journeys between them and jobs in larger centers. Fresh passenger lines would also free up older tracks for more freight transport, sending raw materials and finished goods across the country more easily. "Why is it like this?" asks Yang Zhongmin, the director general of the Ministry of Railways Development and Planning Department. "Because we went through 30 years when [rail] development fell behind the national rate of growth. So now we have to go faster." One of the aims is to help fulfill a long-term goal of developing China's western regions, which have not kept pace with the eastern provinces and their export-led boom. High-speed rail will enable growth in the interior "to be almost the same as what it is on the coast," argues Jia Limin, a professor of what the Chinese term railway science at Beijing Jiaotong University. "It will push western development much faster."

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