If you have just a few hours to search for the essence of China today, you need do nothing more than Pam and I did this weekend: take a ride on the new high-speed rail network. In our case, it was the Guangzhou-Wuhan train, which whooshes along at 340-plus kilometers an hour through rural landscapes where peasants, some apparently barefoot, tend rice paddies with water buffalo in harness. That’s China 2010: one foot in the 21st century, one some centuries back, and a little uncomfortable straddling the gap.

                “Welcome to the Harmony Train!” declared a recorded female voice, in Chinese and English, just after takeoff.  If that choice of words sounds like air travel, well, much of the journey is.

                For our maiden voyage, Pam and I chose Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, more than 300 miles away. “It will take you five hours by train,” warned Stevie Nicks, a Hubei native (“My home is very close to Wuhan — only two hours away”), not grasping that we intended to take the fast train even after I said so twice. In fact it took about 90 minutes; Guangzhou, seven hours away by regular train, is said to take two.

                Unlike the Shinkansen in Japan, China’s high-speed lines — 42 of them to be complete by 2012 —  do not pass through downtown stations where passengers can make easy connections; they run out of sleek new metal-and-glass stations on the outskirts that look and work very much like airports. Pam and I were not entirely convinced that our driver, who usually shuttles us to the Changsha airport, knew where he was going when we set off on the 45-minute ride to Zhuzhou West, but we took heart when we saw a bullet train speeding across an overpass in front of us. It looked just like the pictures on the billboards.

                You buy your ticket from a machine, or from a human being if you’re the old-fashioned type (which adds 5 yuan to the price); no timetables, route maps or brochures are offered. Then you pass through security, where everyone seems to be wanded whether you’ve set off the metal detector or not, and proceed through the vast wavy-roofed station and wait to be called to your designated gate. “Train 1051 is now available for check-in,” we heard from the balcony café at the Wuhan terminal as we wolfed down our wonton soup (which seemed a safer choice than the Mexican fast-food stand below). We weren’t sure what “check-in” involved, but I guessed this was essentially a boarding call — running our tickets through a turnstile like the one for the Airtrain at Newark airport, as we had on the journey up — and I was right. Once through the turnstiles, we descended by escalator to the platform, boarded and found our assigned seats. No announcement was made about seat belts or tray tables or full upright position; there were no safety instructions about what to do if we lost cabin pressure or the unlikely event of a water landing. But once the train left the station, we were flying.

                A colleague had told us that the high-speed trains were great in part because “we’re the only ones on them” – meaning foreigners – but both our trains looked nearly filled by Chinese, if affluent-looking ones. Many Chinese, especially students like Stevie Nicks or Mimi, who takes the seven-hour train home to Guangdong province, find the new trains too expensive: about $60 round trip to Wuhan, “economical class.” Business class was “sold out,” the ticket machine stated, but I suspect it doesn’t exist, or at least not yet, since I saw no such car or section on the train. We noticed that our 3:30 return train left the station at 3:29, which means that either its official clock was running slow or that the turnstile check-in informed the crew that all ticketed passengers were aboard. 

                “Economical class” meant seats a little tight for Western bodies, but it also meant crisply uniformed attendants, a snack cart as well as a dining car, and cleaners sweeping the aisles. “Why can’t we have this?” Pam and I asked each other more than once during our round trip through an incredibly green late-spring countryside, dotted with ancestral tombs built into the hillsides, with the mountains of northern Hunan as a backdrop. The squalor and inefficiency of New York’s Penn Station were frequently invoked. “Penn Station has computers, right?” Pam asked rhetorically. “So why can’t they reserve seats? Why can’t they read tickets?” The larger question, though, was: what would it take for America to have trains this good?

                For starters, it would take a lot of money; the Guangzhou-Wuhan line alone cost $17 billion, according to The New York Times. It would also take genuine high-speed track so the trains could actually run at high speeds. Amtrak’s much-touted, premium-priced Acela is the closest thing we have, but any comparison is laughable: it makes the 250-mile trip between New York and Boston in just over three hours on a good day, when, say, it doesn’t spend two hours stuck on the track behind a disabled local train.

                Most of all, it would take the will to move forward and rebuild a nationwide rail system, 2.0 — a update of the one  America had in the glory days of rail travel, now almost a century ago. Opponents paint government rail spending as subsidies to a losing proposition, rather than investment in a vital service the country needs; they argue that travelers prefer to drive or fly. But those passengers might change their minds if their choices included high-speed lines like China’s, or Europe’s, instead of Amtrak. 

                 Sadly, the United States no longer seems to have that force of will. (Consider how close an obstructionist Congress came to defeating the desperately needed health-care reform bill.) China does.  Think about that when you look down the track.

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