BEIJING, Dec. 26 (Xinhua) -- The world's longest high-speed rail line, which spans over half of China, began operating on Wednesday, further cementing the country's high-speed railway development ambitions.
Two trains departed from stations in Beijing and Guangzhou at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., respectively, to mark the opening of the 2,298-km line.
Running at an average speed of 300 km per hour, the new route cuts travel time between Beijing and Guangzhou from over 20 hours to about eight.
A total of 155 pairs of trains will run on the new line daily and alternative schedules have been made for weekends and peak travel times, according to the Ministry of Railways (MOR).
There will still be 183 pairs of trains running daily on the old Beijing-Guangzhou line that runs parallel to the high-speed line, allaying concerns that the new line will increase passengers' travel costs.
A second-class seat on the new high-speed line costs 865 yuan (138 U.S. dollars), while a sleeper on the old line sells for around 430 yuan.
BETTER DESIGNS, ENHANCED SAFETY
G801, the first train to depart from Beijing Wednesday morning, is comfortable and more passenger-friendly, according to Xinhua reporters aboard the train.
Running at a speed of more than 300 km per hour did not seem to have an effect on the passengers' comfort, but it did make cell phone connections unstable.
The new line has a string of measures in place to ensure safety, which has been a major concern for high-speed railway travel since bullet train crash near south China's city of Wenzhou left 40 people dead in July 2011.
The measures include boosting maintenance for fixed equipment and mobile devices onboard and improving the control system to address possible problems that could occur during extreme weather, said Sun Shuli, a chief engineer responsible for designing sections of the new line.
On July 23, 2011, a high-speed train slammed into a stalled train near Wenzhou, resulting in 40 deaths and 172 people being injured. The accident was blamed on faulty signaling equipment and improper management.
Zhang Hongsheng, who has worked as a bullet train mechanic since China's first high-speed train debuted in 2007, said inspections are now conducted on an hourly basis on high-speed trains to ensure safety.
"We also maintain regular risk checks and timely communication with the train driver, the conductor and the crew," Zhang said while conducting a routine check on one of the new bullet trains.
"I will definitely take the high-speed rail going between Beijing and Wuhan. It only takes four and a half hours. And no trouble with the airport," said Feng Qi, a passenger from Wuhan, a central China city and also a stop on the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed line.
Following the line's debut, short-distance flights have seen price drops, with the lowest price for a Beijing-Wuhan flight at 150 yuan on Ctrip.com, a leading online travel agency in China. Most tickets are being offered at discounts between 30 and 50 percent.
NETWORK SHAPING UP
"The opening of the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed line shows that China's high-speed railway network has started to take shape," said Zhou Li, director-general of science and technology at the MOR.
With the opening of the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed line, China now has more than 9,300 km of high-speed rails in operation.
The new line is one of four north-south lines expected to serve as a backbone for the country's high-speed railway network, which also features four east-west lines.
According to the 12th five-year plan for railway development, by 2015, China will have around 120,000 km of rails in operation, including 18,000 km of high-speed rails and an express railway network reaching 40,000 km that allows speeds of over 160 km per hour.
Although high-speed rail construction stagnated after last year's accident, the country cautiously resumed the construction and operation of high-speed railways this year.
Fixed-asset investment in railways rose 3.1 percent year on year to 506.97 billion yuan during the first 11 months of 2012, according to Ministry of Railways data.
Preparations for a new high-speed line linking the central Chinese cities of Zhengzhou and Xuzhou are under way. The line will intersect the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed rail line and the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line, which went into operation on June 30, 2011.
REGIONAL ECONOMIC DRIVE
"The rail network closely connects economic hubs like the Pan-Bohai economic zone, central China, the Yangtze River Delta economic zone and the Pearl River Delta economic zone and will greatly boost socioeconomic development in these regions," said Zhou.
Although the old Beijing-Guangzhou route accounts for just 3.14 percent of the nation's total operating railway mileage, it has carried 8 percent of the country's total railway cargo turnover and 18 percent of its passenger turnover, according to Sun.
The new Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed line will not only improve transportation conditions, but also cut logistics costs, boost the comprehensive development of land resources along the route, enhance the investment environment and improve economic collaboration and the division of labor between regions, he said.
Research by the Development Research Center of the State Council showed that the Beijing-Zhengzhou section of the new high-speed line will add 275.8 billion yuan to the country's GDP by 2030.
Sensitive to the potential for growth, China's local governments have already taken steps to embrace coming opportunities.
In Xingtai, a less-developed north China city that is also one of the new high-speed line's 35 stops, a new urban district has been planned around the high-speed railway station to pave way for future development.
"The new high-speed rail will further increase Xingtai's geographic advantages. It is located near Beijing and can take capital and industry transferred from Beijing, as well as benefit from talent and technology in Beijing," said Zhao Changjing, a local official.
The Xinxing Cathay International Group, a Fortune 500 company, has already started to build a financial center and high-end industrial park in Xingtai's "high-speed railway district," with plans to invest a total of 50 billion yuan in the next five years.
The full operation of the Beijing-Guangzhou high-speed railway will accelerate China's urbanization progress, as it will help large cities to better perform their role as central cities, boost the development of medium-sized cities along the route and foster the birth and development of new small cities and towns, Sun said.