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China hits the rails

Adrienne Mong

Welcome aboard "The Harmony Express."

EN ROUTE TO SHANGHAI—The world’s largest high-speed rail network.  The world’s longest ocean bridge.

We said it once before, we’ll say it again.

China likes its superlatives.

And on Thursday it had two more infrastructure projects to crow about.

First, the world’s longest sea bridge opened in Qingdao.

At 23 miles long, the Qingdao Jiaozhou Bay Bridge has eight lanes and connects two districts within one of China’s prettiest port cities.  The journey between the two regions is now shorter by nineteen miles and by half the original travel time of forty minutes.  It took $2.3 billion and four years to build.

But the second was much more impressive.  And controversial.

The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail link opened for business Thursday afternoon.

Thousands of Chinese passengers turned up at Beijing’s South Railway Station, tickets in hand.

“I’m excited,” said Tina Cheng, an IT marketing executive who paid 550 yuan ($85) for her second-class ticket on the express train, which will barrel through three municipalities and four provinces at 188 miles an hour to reach Shanghai in under five hours. “It’s a moment of pride for the Chinese people.”

The new railway line was built in 39 months, almost a year in advance.  Rail officials and engineers tested the line for at least a month before opening one day ahead of the Chinese Communist Party celebrating its 90th year on Friday.

“This is not only for our employees but also for our country,” said Tian Lijun, the Deputy Director of the Bogie Assembly Workshop at the CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles Co., Ltd.  His company is one of two that produce the rolling stock for the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed link.  “I think this is a gift for our Communist Party.”

Photoblog: More images of the longest cross-sea bridge

Homegrown technology?

Adrienne Mong

A journalist enjoys the comforts of "VIP class," which will sell for $270 a seat one-way.

NBC News and nearly 300 other news crews were invited by the government to ride the high-speed rail link earlier this week. 

We won’t rehash all the details here--there were numerous entertaining accounts of how smooth the 824-mile journey was; how if you took Amtrak to cover the same distance—between NY and Atlanta, it would take you 18 hours; the complicated pricing structure as a result of running two train speeds on the new line; the concerns about safety, especially after the Railways Ministry chief was sacked for allegedly embezzling more than $25 million.

And, sure, the ride was smooth.  The cars were sleek.  The journey was seamless.

But what struck us more was that China is trumpeting its new high-speed rail as all home-grown.

“The technology is all from Chinese experts and engineers,” said Cheng Le’an, the deputy head of the Beijing Railway Bureau.

Not so fast.

“The technology we imported is very advanced,” said Yang Hong, the Chief Designer at CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles.  “We absorbed these imported technologies and created and developed our own products.”

On a rare opportunity to film the CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles’ multiple factories in the northeastern province of Jilin, we walked through impressive hangar-like spaces and saw the occasional Westerner wearing a Siemens t-shirt. 

The German engineering giant and Alstom--a conglomerate from France specializing in transport and power generation systems--have been working with CNR for years on building rolling stock for China’s high-speed rail network.

Adrienne Mong

Tweaking the details on a high-speed rail car at CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles.

“These two platforms [from Alstom and Siemens] were world-leading technologies,” said Yang.  “On that basis, we developed our own 380 kilometer-an-hour (236mph) trains.  CRH380C is our own product, with full intellectual copyrights.”

The CRH380C is CNR’s latest high-speed railway car.  The company says it has twelve per cent less friction than its current model running on the Beijing-Shanghai link, the CRH380B.

How much “help” originated overseas is becoming a sticking point as Chinese rail companies bid to land overseas railway projects, particularly in the Middle East and South America, competing with the very same outfits that helped China build out its own high-speed rail system.

“We have the right to export our technology,” said Yang.

And CNR does—certainly in other rail technology.  On our visit, we saw subways waiting to be shipped to Brazil. Undercarriages were piled up on another massive assembly floor, inspected by a group of unidentifiable foreign engineers.

“As we learn the technology from other developed countries, we have mastered many key technologies and have developed our own,” said Zhang Tian, a spokesman for CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles.  “With the full intellectual property copyrights for these technologies, I think it’s very natural for us to export them to other countries….  Our company should be like Microsoft, to share its technology with people all over the world.”

Adrienne Mong

Inside one of the factories run by CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles.

Global competitiveness

Seeing high-speed railway cars being built from scratch in cavernous and clean spaces unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed in China, we found it difficult not to be impressed by its well-organized efficiency.  And to wonder about their competitiveness in the global market. 

"The biggest risk I think for [the Chinese government] is if they didn’t build [the high-speed rail network] safely,” said Andy Rothman, China macro strategist at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets.  “If they were to have accidents, which could then be linked back to the corruption scandal that’s underway—poor concrete, poor design, then that would be a significant problem for them.”

Given the potential to grow their businesses by winning international bids, Chinese rail authorities and company officials are under pressure to ensure they can develop and stick to standards.

But as an old-fashioned patriot observed, “There’s still a huge gap between China and other developed countries.  We have the motivation to catch up.  So we try everything we can to study and work.  There’s still a lot for us to learn.”

Zhang paused and smiled, “We want to be the same as Americans.  We want a strong country and a good life.”


China launched a major new link on its high-speed rail system on Thursday, which traverses the 800-mile route from Beijing to Shanghai in less than five hours. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.