From The Straits Times    |

China launched services Wednesday on the world’s longest high-speed rail route, the latest milestone in the country’s rapid and — sometimes troubled — super-fast rail network.

The opening of the 2,298-kilometre (1,425-mile) line between Beijing and Guangzhou means passengers will be whisked from the capital to the southern commercial hub in just eight hours, compared with the 22 hours previously.

State broadcaster China Central Television showed the 9:00 am (0100 GMT) departure of the first train live from Beijing West Railway Station and its arrival later in Guangzhou at about 5:00 pm.

It also carried occasional live reports inside the train throughout the day, showing passengers toting cameras to snap commemorative photos, as well as shots from outside as it sped through the countryside.

Another train departed Guangzhou for the capital at 10:00 am and arrived in Beijing at about 6:00 pm.

The train departing Beijing travelled at an average speed of 300 kilometres per hour and made stops in four cities — Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou, Wuhan on the Yangtze River and Changsha — before arriving in Guangzhou.

State media have reported that December 26 was chosen to start the Beijing-Guangzhou service to commemorate the birth in 1893 of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

The Beijing-Guangzhou route was made possible with the completion of a line between Zhengzhou and Beijing. High-speed sections linking Zhengzhou and Wuhan and Wuhan and Guangzhou were already in service.

One-way tickets from Beijing to Guangzhou ranged in price from 865 yuan ($140) for second class to 2,727 yuan for business class.

Airlines reportedly scrambled to compete with the new service, offering discounted one-way fares as low as 460 yuan Wednesday between the cities.

China’s high-speed rail network was only established in 2007 but has fast become the world’s largest. The official Xinhua news agency said China now operates 9,300 kilometres of high-speed railways.

The state-run China Daily newspaper said Wednesday the high-speed rail network is set to jump to 50,000 kilometres by 2020, with four main lines running north and south and another four east and west.

China has relied on technology transfers from foreign companies, including France’s Alstom, Germany’s Siemens and Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries, to develop its high-speed network.

But the country is now seeking to capitalise on what it has learned and has been building high-speed rail networks in countries such as Turkey and Venezuela.

The China News Service said the major type of train running on the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed route is produced by state-owned China CNR Corp, headquartered in Beijing and founded in June 2008.

China’s domestic network, while a symbol of its emergence as the world’s second largest economy, has also been plagued by graft and safety scandals, such as a collision in July 2011 that killed 40 people.

The accident was China’s worst rail disaster since 2008 and caused a torrent of public criticism of the government amid accusations that authorities compromised safety in their rush to expand the network.

Authorities said they took steps ahead of the new line’s opening to improve maintenance and inspection of infrastructure, and emergency response measures.

Still, safety concerns remain.

The Global Times newspaper on Wednesday quoted a Ministry of Railways official acknowledging continuing problems despite intense efforts to solve them during trial runs.

“We can’t make sure it’s error-proof in the future, and we have been subject to a lot of pressure from the public,” Zhao Chunlei, deputy chief of the ministry’s transportation department, told the paper. – AFP RELAXNEWS