China slows down showcase bullet trains

BEIJING (AP) — China is slowing down its bullet trains following complaints the showcase system is dangerously fast and too expensive.

High-speed rail is a national prestige project aimed at showing off China’s technological prowess and rising wealth while linking together its far-flung regions. That makes any decision to scale it back politically sensitive.

The fastest routes will be cut from 350 kph (220 mph) to 300 kph (190 mph) as of July 1, railway minister Sheng Guangzu told the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily. Sheng was appointed in February after his predecessor was fired amid a graft probe.

“This will offer more safety,” Sheng said. “At the same time, this will allow more variation in ticket prices based on market principles.”

The minister gave no indication whether Beijing might scale back ambitious expansion plans that call for adding thousands of miles (kilometers) of high-speed routes.

Bullet trains are one of a series of areas from clean energy to mobile phones where communist leaders want to transform China into a creator of technology and evolve beyond its status as a low-cost factory.

The former railway minister, Liu Zhijun, was the public face of high-speed rail plans and his firing prompted suggestions they might lose momentum. News reports media say accusations against Liu include kickbacks, bribes, illegal contracts and sexual liaisons.

The government signaled a possible shift in attitude when state media began airing complaints early this year. The Global Times newspaper, published by People’s Daily, called bullet trains “incredibly risky” and said the “railway frenzy” was driven by politics rather than market needs.

China’s trains are based on Japanese, French and German technology but its manufacturers are trying to sell to Latin America and the Middle East. That has prompted complaints Beijing is violating the spirit of licenses with foreign providers by reselling technology that was meant to be used only in China.

A senior railway official said last year Chinese manufacturers might compete for contracts to build a high-speed line in California.

In China, engineers have warned the system’s top speed is too fast, while others say the multibillion-dollar price tag is too high for a country where millions of families still live in poverty.

China has the world’s biggest train network, with 56,000 miles (91,000 kilometers) of passenger rail and 3.2 million employees. But trains are overloaded with passengers and cargo, and critics say the money would be better spent expanding cheaper, slower routes.

Government plans call for spending 700 billion yuan ($106 billion) on railway building this year. Officials say the high-speed network will grow to 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) of track by the end of this year and 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) by 2020.

A key project is a 215 billion yuan ($32.5 billion), 1,318-kilometre (824-mile) Beijing-Shanghai line that is due to open next year. Sheng’s comments in the People’s Daily gave no indication those plans might be altered.

The heavy spending on the Hexie Hao, or Harmony, bullet trains has prompted complaints Beijing is failing to meet the needs of its poor majority by investing in lower-cost regular service.

China overtook Japan last year as the world’s second-biggest economy after the United States. But with 1.3 billion people, China barely places in the top 100 on the World Bank’s list of countries by average income per person.

During the Lunar New Year holiday in February, working class travelers complained they couldn’t afford high-speed tickets and regular trains were sold out. A migrant worker became an Internet sensation when he stripped to his underwear to protest outside a ticket office after he waited 14 hours in line but couldn’t get tickets for his family.

Construction costs have saddled China’s railway operators with debt that industry analysts say ticket sales might not cover.

A 72-mile (115-kilometer) line linking Beijing with the nearby port of Tianjin cost 21.5 billion yuan ($3.3 billion), by far China’s most expensive rail route. The route is so short that the train hits its 350 kph (220 mph) cruising speed for only a few minutes before it slows in preparation for arrival.

The engineer who oversaw high-speed rail development also was fired for “discipline violations,” according to state media.

The national audit office reported in March that 187 million yuan ($28 million) had been embezzled from the Beijing-Shanghai project.

The top speed will apply to four north-south and four east-west trunk lines and regional lines will run at 200-250 kph (125-155 mph), said Sheng, the railway minister, according to People’s Daily.

In response to complaints about high ticket prices, Sheng said the government also will run lower-cost bullet trains at 200-250 kph (125-155 mph) on trunk lines.

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