China is set to overtake Japan as the land of the fastest trains after the government gave the green light to a top speed of 350 kilometres per hour (220mph).
Six years after a speed limit of 300km/h (190mph) was imposed following two fatal accidents, a new generation of trains will reach the higher speed from September 21.
Two collisions in the summer of 2011 killed 40 people and led to the sacking of the country’s top railway official, who had been credited with pushing through the introduction of bullet trains in the country.
Even though one of the crashes, near the eastern city of Wenzhou, was later ruled not to have been caused by speed, officials responded to public concern by ordering trains to run more slowly. Now, with Liu Zhijun, the former railway minister, imprisoned for life for corruption, and with several years of zero-accident safety records, Beijing is ready to accelerate again.
President Xi asked last year whether China was ready to restore the maximum speed to 350km/h. There was only one answer the industry was ever going to give. It has given the new trains the name Fuxing, meaning “revival”, echoing the president’s favourite political slogan.
All the trains have been fitted with an improved monitoring system that will slow and stop them automatically in an emergency.
“From technical safety to reliability and comfort, there’s no question that the Beijing-Shanghai line can run at 350 kilometres per hour,” a senior railway official told state media.
The authorities must also weigh up the cost of operating a faster service. Experts estimate that costs will rise by 20 to 30 per cent as the speed is raised to 350km/h. The faster a train runs, the more electricity it needs and the quicker parts become worn out and need replacing.
Passengers are already complaining about the price of tickets for the bullet trains and are reluctant to pay more.
At present, China is not planning to raise ticket prices once the trains speed up next month.
He Huawu, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, has told state media that faster trips on the Beijing-Shanghai line, which connects two of China’s most prosperous regions, will bring more socio-economic benefits, justifying the higher costs. In the past six years the railway line has transported more than 630 million passengers.
At the new high speed, travellers shuttling between Beijing and Shanghai will cut at least half an hour from their journey to a time of four and a half hours. The authorities hope that the faster and easier connection between China’s two most important cities will boost economic development.
China is home to the world’s longest high-speed rail network. Of the country’s 31 provinces and regions, 29 are served by high-speed rail, with only Tibet and Ningxia in the northwest yet to be connected.
China’s trains are speeding up as Beijing also bids to build high-speed railway projects outside the country, a key part of President Xi’s “One Belt One Road” initiative aimed at boosting Beijing’s global influence.
Jia Limin, a transportation professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, told state media: “China boasts the world’s most advanced, 350km/h high-speed train technology as well as the ability to build and operate it. But if we don’t use it, why should others buy it?”