Opened with much fanfare on June 30, 2011, the Beijing-to-Shanghai line is the world's longest high-speed railway. It was constructed in just three years at a cost of $32 billion, part of the massive government stimulus package that helped cushion China from the ravages of the global financial crisis. Not surprisingly, the rapid infusion of money into the state-run railway system brought not only economic stimulus but also corruption, mismanagement, and lax safety oversight.
Those problems coalesced on the night of July 23, 2011, when a high-speed train rear-ended another train that had lost power during a storm and stalled on an overpass outside the southern coastal city of Wenzhou. Six train cars derailed, some of them falling 50 feet off the overpass. Forty people, including two Americans, were killed and 191 were injured. Graphic images of the accident, which outraged the Chinese public, were beamed around the world.
We were well aware of the tragedy when we planned our Christmas-break trip from Beijing to Shanghai. We were in Beijing to visit with our teenage daughter, a Central High School student who was spending her junior year studying there, and she joined us on the train trip. Given the accident - and other reports of delays and shutdowns elsewhere on China's high-speed rail system - should we fly or take the new bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai? The ticket price was about equal, so we had to weigh other factors.
On the one hand, prudence argued for the airline. Although Wenzhou was more than 200 miles south of Shanghai, it was part of the same high-speed rail system and presumably made use of the same signaling equipment that an official government investigation later blamed for the Wenzhou crash.
On the other hand, the bullet train would give us a glimpse of the countryside, avoid the hassle of airports and cramped airplanes, and allow us more time to talk with our daughter, whom we had not seen in four months. Besides, we reasoned, despite all the publicity about the Wenzhou crash, traffic accidents, not train crashes, are the leading cause of death in China among those under the age of 45.
So on one of those rare blue-sky days in Beijing, when the air pollution had cleared enough so you could see the surrounding mountains, we made our way via taxi through morning traffic from Beijing's Xicheng District in the north to the Beijing South Station on the opposite edge of the capital.
A Chinese friend had purchased our tickets a few days in advance so we would be assured of a seat. But at least on this day, there was no need. Even in second class, the least expensive seating, there were many empty seats; and in the plush first-class and VIP seating, the train was virtually empty.
We sat three in a row in comfortable seats with old-fashioned white doilies on the headrests and plenty of legroom. There was free WiFi, and an electrical outlet at the bottom of each chair. In the front of our car, a digital sign, in Mandarin and English, reported our speed and progress through more than a dozen cities from Tianjin in the north to Nanjing in the south. The restrooms were immaculate, with Western-style toilets.
As the train picked up speed, it felt as if we were floating on air rather than hurtling through space. After the hustle and bustle of Beijing, where we had spent a hectic week, the train was the perfect place to sit back and relax and let the scenery roll by - fallow fields, laid out in neat squares; irrigation canals, thick with ice; seedlings pushing up on reforested hills once denuded by strip mining; and, on the outskirts of the cities, cranes crawling over the landscape in the rush to build new factories and high-rise apartments.
At most of the cities, the concrete walls along the rail line blocked a clear view of city life. The skeptic in me thought this might be a deliberate effort to shield Westerners and the Chinese business elite from getting a firsthand look at the growing economic divide between the haves and the have-nots. A less guarded view would be that it was a safety feature.
Although the train had no formal dining car, there was a snack bar. A cup of soup was just six yuan (about $1); a bag of almonds, 20 yuan ($3.20); prunes, 16 yuan ($2.56). For 30 yuan ($4.80), the three of us shared a box of delicious Chinese pastries and steaming cups of strong green tea.
We had left Beijing at 10 a.m. At 2:45 p.m., we pulled into the Shanghai station, which is located at the city's domestic airport on the outskirts of town. To get to our hotel on East Nanjing Road, we took the subway rather than a taxi, which can get tied up in traffic for hours. Though it was standing room only, the subway cost just five yuan (about 80 cents) and got us to our destination in 40 minutes.
All in all, a relaxing trip. For the more adventurous, however, I'd recommend the old-fashioned way to get from Beijing to Shanghai - the so-called hard sleeper train. It will take you 10 hours, cram you into a cabin with five other people and involve a traditional Chinese squat toilet. But it will cost half as much as the bullet train and will expose you to a fascinating parade of humanity - the real China, which the engineers who designed the bullet train seem to have left behind.
Huntly Collins is an assistant professor of communications at La Salle University and a former reporter at The Inquirer and the Portland Oregonian. She has traveled widely in China over the last 32 years as both a journalist and an educator.