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High-speed Chinese train kicks French, Japanese butt

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China's new high-speed passenger-train service broke world speed records on its maiden run over the weekend.

According to a report in Monday's Financial Times, the Harmony express train travelled from Guangzhou in Guangdong province to the central-China city of Wuhan - a distance of 1,100km (684mi) - in under three hours.

The previous rail service between the two cities took about 11 hours.

The Harmony has a top speed of 394kph (245mph), and during its inaugural run it averaged 350kph (217mph), well faster than the 300kph (186mph) "maximum service speed" of France's TGV and Japan's Shinkansen, aka Bullet Train.

By contrast, the FT points out that it takes the US's Amtrak Acela Express three and a half hours to traverse the 300km from Boston to New York City - although that train has hit 217kph (135mph) in time trials.

China's Harmony express train isn't a mere demonstration project - it's scheduled to make the cross-country trip 56 times per day.

"Expressways are not suited for China, which has large numbers of people but little space to spare," government adviser Zheng Tianxiang told the FT. "China should learn from Japan and Europe." By which he meant more rail, and fewer expressways and freeways as exist in the US.

The Harmony system wasn't cheap. State reports have put costs at $17bn over the system's four-and-a-half year construction period, but government officials declined to confirm those numbers to the FT.

There are certainly unaccounted ancillary costs, such as the $2.4bn that the city of Wuhan sunk into its new train station - which, like the new station in Guangzhou, is an inconvenient hour-long drive from the city center.

Tickets aren't cheap, either. First class runs 780 Yuan Renminbi (£71, $114) and second class 490 (£45, $72). Also, the FT points out, the state-run China Southern Airlines has responded to the competition by dropping ticket prices to as low as 250 Yuan Renminbi (£23, $37) for advance reservations.

But despite stiff price competition and inconvenient stations, Harmony is a good bet. As Zheng implied, the inevitability of future fuel-cost inflation and increased congestion make China's new high-speed rail system a smart investment. ®

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