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The Case for China’s Trains

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The Case for China’s Trains

The bizarre combination of investments from quasi-communist China and a private Las Vegas firm might instigate a new era in American travel. Or at least introduce a quicker way for Angelenos to get to Vegas for a wild weekend.

In less than a year, China plans to start building a high-speed train line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The new line will be a joint venture between private American firm XpressWest and several Chinese state firms. China has built the world’s most extensive high-speed rail network in the last decade, while the U.S. has debated and ultimately nixed funding most expansions. Until now.

Residing in China for the past year, I’ve spent at least 100 hours on Chinese bullet trains, zipping up and down the country’s East Coast, watching the digital speedometer above the door to each car rise above 300 kilometers an hour-186 mph. The system is called “China Railway High-speed.; Once onboard, things get even more Eastern, as a serenely-voiced recording welcomes you to “Harmony.”

Back home in the U.S., I’ve put in at least as many hours on our equivalent—Amtrak to the chugging of diesel locomotives from the last century, which is not exactly harmonious.

My hours in China have gotten me a lot farther. Which doesn’t make that system better, though.

Here are a few other differences between train travel at home and in the far East.

1. Trains in China Actually Go Places

Whether in the middle of the urban blur of Shanghai or a tiny mountain town in Sichuan Province, the CRH will pick you up and take you anywhere. It might not be high-speed if you start small, but it is almost guaranteed that an older train will take you to a new one.

That is not so in the states. Sure, if you’re in Boston and you want to go to New York, the train is a great option for breezing through Connecticut in a couple of hours. But if you’re in many of the other cities in this country, trains are ridiculously slow—if they even pass through your town or, hell, your state.

Only two states in the lower 48 aren’t crossed by an Amtrak line—but that’s a forgiving measure of how terrible train service is in many of the places it does transverse. For example, Idaho has one Amtrak stop, in the northern town of Sandpoint, which is 500 miles from the state capital. So we could stack seven Connecticuts between Idaho’s capital and its low-speed train station. And if you live in South Dakota or Wyoming, you might as well just stay home.

2. Chinese Trains Are Shiny, Modern, and Fast

2. china fast train.jpg
Photo by ChinaFotoPress”/Getty

In the year 2000, China had no high-speed rail system. In 2013, they had almost 7,000 miles of it, with an average speed of 180 mph, and they’re building more every day. There are several departures an hour going in most directions, and it’s cheap—going 500 miles costs about 50 U.S. dollars.

Shanghai also has the world’s only commercial maglev (that’s magnetic levitation) train, which banks its turns like a roller coaster and hits a speed of 270 mph, which is clearly just to show off because it only goes 18 miles. The velvet ropes and potted plants in the station add to its appeal.

Meanwhile, back at home, Amtrak launched its slightly higher-speed Acela line from Boston to Washington DC in 2000, with a top speed of 150 miles per hour. And now? We still just have that same 450-mile track from Boston to DC, which is so popular, airlines have reduced flights in the area. But no other lines have been built. More often than I’d like to believe, this has been because politicians can’t decide if investing in affordable, fast, efficient transportation is a good idea.

3. CRH is Unpredictable

The Chinese system is impressive, but it can be a bit quirky. You have to be careful when purchasing your ticket, because even on the newest and nicest trains, the ticket doesn’t always come with a seat. In these cases the ticket agent might tell you this before you buy. Emphasis on the word might.

Amtrak is much more predictable; a coach class ticket always comes with a seat. Oh, America. Always predictable.

4. CRH is Confusing

4. china train confusing.jpg
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty

Amtrak is the old-school Airstream of train travel. There is no glamour in it, and it definitely isn’t quick, but any ticket you buy will get you a comfortable seat, and if you go far enough, you’ll arrive having seen some parts of the country that get overlooked by flyers. You can cram as much carry-on baggage as you want into the unguarded storage racks on the trains’ lower level, plus your first 100 pounds of checked baggage is free. Of course, if Amtrak’s anything like our airlines, they could start charging for comfy seats and checked baggage any minute now.

China’s trains are much less straightforward and offer a capitalistic list of choices for how fast you want to go and how happy you want to be in the process. Choose anything from a less posh version of airplane business class, to hard seats, traditional squat toilets, and aisles crammed with passengers who will be standing or sitting on their suitcases for the long haul on a slow train.

Some expats like to ride these trains for the nostalgic adventure of an inter-city ticket that costs a couple of dollars—sort of like the older Chinese people I’ve met who dream about road tripping Route 66.

5. Amtrak Seats Are Fit for American Asses and Adventures

What it lacks in speed, route options, and seat options, Amtrak makes up for in base-level comfort. The seats are wide and lie almost flat. In my 2,000-mile, 3-day train slogs across this country, I’ve appreciated at least that.

Maybe the LA to Las Vegas line will be the start of a new kind of train travel in the U.S.-cleaner, faster, and more efficient. But one of the best things about riding Amtrak is it’s not entirely about getting from place to place. American trains feel a bit like being back in the Wild West: Plenty of space, strong personalities, few rules, and even less enforcement. Who knows what the future may bring—best to take a trip on our slow old relics before they go the way of Route 66.

Ketti Wilhelm is a writer and journalist who moved to China indiscriminately, and is happy she did.

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