When China’s railway minister was sacked in February amid allegations of widespread corruption, one immediate question was what effect it would have on his effort to build a world-class high-speed train system. The answer, it emerged this week, is that China’s sleek, white bullet trains are going to ease up on the throttle. Sheng Guangzu, the new head of the country’s vast railway system, told the People’s Daily that the trains would lower their top speed from 350 kph (217 mph) to 300 kph (186 mph) beginning July 1. The slowdown marks a blow to the ambitions of disgraced ministry chief Liu Zhijun, who oversaw a remarkable increase in the speed and size of China’s railway system.
Since Liu took the helm of the railway ministry in 2003, the country put down 8,358 km of high-speed tracks, a number he hoped to double by 2015. The system includes the world’s fastest passenger train line, which runs from Wuhan to Guangzhou at an average speed of 313 kph. Last month Chinese airlines announced they were canceling flights from Wuhan to Nanjing because they couldn’t compete with the fast train service. But while China’s railway system marked impressive feats of speed, it still left many passengers unsatisfied.
Despite widespread upgrades to the system, many travelers couldn’t find tickets during the peak travel period at the Chinese New Year, forcing them to take buses or more expensive flights. Others complained of being forced to take more expensive high-speed trains when regular trains sold out. And experts questioned if China, which despite all its impressive growth in recent decades is still a developing country, truly needed trains with speeds that rivaled those in Japan or Europe.
Sheng, who has emphasized safety and eliminating corruption, said that in response to passenger demands the ministry will offer more trains at slower speeds. Cutting speeds should allow the ministry to run trains more safely and cheaper, Zhao Jian, a transport professor at Beijing Jiaotong University, told the state-run China Daily. While the ministry hasn’t said exactly what effect the change will have on ticket prices, a spokeswoman told the paper that it will “provide a bigger price-float range.”
China’s rail gains had drawn the attention of other nations that are struggling to fund infrastructure improvements at a time of global stagnation. President Obama mentioned China’s trains during his State of the Union address this year. And Chinese companies have marketed the country’s expertise abroad, building a metro line in the holy city of Mecca and proposing a rail alternative to the Panama Canal. But the latest slowdown is another reminder that with high speed comes risk.