China, Connected

September 15, 2015

After major setbacks, high-speed rail is becoming the unifying force Chinese planners had long hoped it would be.

Sold out train cars. Protests in cities denied high-speed rail access. And, now, a stunning map depicting a China unified by crisscrossing lines of steel that has gone viral across social media. After early setbacks, including a deadly collision and the fall of the country’s minister of railways, China’s gaotie — Chinese for high-speed rail, or HSR — is finally hitting its stride, connecting over 100 cities with a dedicated network of around 10,000 miles of track — more than the rest of the world combined.

In late July, an unofficial map of China’s HSR network created by Tao Anjun, a professor at Southeast University in Nanjing and self-professed rail fan and map geek, went viral on the Chinese web (complete with Korean, Japanese, and English versions, the latter pictured above). The detailed color-coded graphic mimics the simplicity and user-friendliness of a subway map, though Chinese transportation officials have emphasized in response that the map should not be used a substitute for official train schedules. Even so, the image and its enthusiastic reception have heralded HSR’s arrival as a mainstream, and increasingly beloved, part of everyday life.Website Insert 5000 New Seats copy

Netizens liken the HSR network to a subway system; one that’s convenient, fast, and integrated. “HSR has transformed China into one big city. Someone can live in Shijiazhuang and work in Beijing,” one commentator noted on mobile message platform WeChat. (The cities are about 180 miles apart, or a little over an hour on HSR.) Web users have said merely looking at the map makes them want to travel, tour, and eat. One version of the map going around points out the many possibilities for foodies along the Nanjing-Chengdu line, beginning with blood and vermicelli soup in Nanjing, then duck neck in Wuhan, and ending with hot pot in Chengdu.

The opening of a new line generates genuine excitement in cities slated to join the grid. In March, officials announced that the line running from Yanji — at 400,000 people, this northeastern city in Jilin province is small by Chinese standards — to the provincial capital of Changchun would open in October, cutting travel time from about five hours by bus to two by rail. As one Changchun resident from Yanji gushed, “Ever since we heard the news, my whole family has been looking forward to it.”

Read the full commentary from Wei Zhu in Foreign Policy by clicking here.


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