All change, please!
This post has been updated and is now on a new version of this site.
This notice will remain online until 20 September 2016.
The new Street Level China post features, which are published regularly on this blog by David, offer you a view of China from street level — uncensored, unrestricted, unmodified.
Face it, the future of the rails in China lies with HSR. High speed rail landed in China beginning in 2007 with the 6th Nationwide Railway Acceleration Campaign, when trains running as fast as 250 km/h were unleashed. In 2008, even faster speed demons were set loose, to the tune of 350 km/h. The conservative rail minister Sheng Guangzu, however, rolled back speeds in mid-2011, initially finding no plausible reason, but later “backed” by the Wenzhou disaster. A speedbump is not expected any time soon, but already, these machines, rolling at 300 km/h, have transformed the way Chinese people get from A to B.
Shijiazhuang’s new railway hub features 24 platforms (nearly five times the size of the original station), an elevated concourse many times the size of the old, Maoist-era-in-appearance building, and links to the upcoming Shijiazhuang Metro. Soon, cars may disappear altogether from the parking lot in the picture, as many people transfer from HSR to Metros. Already now, many people “park and ride” from this station to Beijing, Zhengzhou, or further afield; it will take most riders just over an hour on fast services to reach these metropolises.
China’s HSR network calls for 16,000 km of express rail, although speeds have been lowered in western China. These short-sighted moves are, however, proving themselves to be failed policies, the best evidence of which can be seen in eastern China. Here, a new 350 km/h line is planned in eastern China’s province of Shandong between the cities of Ji’nan and Qingdao. At present, trains run no faster than 200 km/h on the existing accelerated line. Just think of the benefits the new 350 km/h line can bring the ridership, as well as those along the railway line.
When all is said and done, and when speeds are improved once again, Beijing will only be 8 hours away from Hong Kong, 12 hours from Ürümqi, and 24 hours from the once prohibitively-remote city of Lhasa in Tibet. China’s new revolution is less about political doctrines and more about moving people elegantly from A to B in a highly efficient manner.
That’s because I started helping my school clean test-tubes and beakers when I was about 15 over lunch — when I had nothing better to do after finishing my quick helping.
I’m not kidding you. It might seem a helluva strange reason: how do you mix cleaning lab gear with optimising English? But that’s the thing: it’s all about helping out and not “asking for attention”. (My friends in China tell me that this was the thing that was done half a decade ago. These days, if you help out, you’d be seen like an outdated follower of Lei Feng (“the mythical Chinese guy that helped everyone”) if you didn’t leave your name on the thing.)
Like: As of late, one of the trains that’s used my optimised English, train D365 from Beijing South to Fuzhou, got commended by the official People’s Railway Daily. But you never saw any public mentioning that “it was David Feng’s idea to equip the train with bilingual service cards, and that David had to work and retweak the cards, time and again, to get it right, and that David Feng paid from his own pocket to get the cards made ‘for real’, because he wanted the thing on the train ASAP”.
I seriously couldn’t care more. The thing is, I’m helping out because of Chinglish on the trains. Honestly, when you’re told — Please don’t throw the rubbish into the dustbin — you know that something’s gone wrong. Where else can you dump that banana you’ve just devoured? Obviously, the windows are sealed; it’d be suicide to crack these things open at 380 km/h*.
So with China concocting more Chinglish than they’re eradicating it — the rails included — it’s about high time I stepped in to stop the mess. Regard me as the lingo-savvy street cleaner, always photographing Chinglish and always correcting it. For one thing, I don’t like it when my railways scream out with Chinglish on their back. (If you bang into me you’ll see I’m Chinese, irregardless which ID I hold. And I don’t like it when Chinese Railways has to make do with sub-par Chinglish.)
Wuxi East is a cool station, and they’re probably a little cooler with standardised, optimised English all over the place. But nobody’d knew they translations were David Feng works — I deliberately left all traces of David Feng-ness off the thing. Ditto with Xi’an North — if you spot optimised English, that’ll just me doing my thing, sans credits. Oh and the same with Hanzhong and Ji’nan West.
I’m helping the rails get their English in order. (As an assistant professor of English at a key uni in China, it’s about time I did something for real — combining what I teach with what I love.) I’ve been to 22 countries and territories and I know when they’ve right-glish hanging over you in station signs. Obviously, since this is China’s railway system, I’m basing my optimised English on Chinese national norms, but I’m also making an effort to get the English up to speed by consulting with how English is used the right way in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Switzerland, and the UK. (Forget the US — they dumped the rails a long time ago…)
I don’t expect to get paid for this; I’m also not after free rides. (I paid for 34,000+ km of rail travel last year.) It’s a bit of Menschness (a la Guy Kawasaki). I’ll be happy when I slip into bed in the evenings knowing that Chinese Railways have one less sign in Chinglish, and one more sign in optimised English.
For one thing, I’m already happy now that passengers on HSR services to Shijiazhuang are no longer told: “Please don’t throw the rubbish into the dustbin”.
That for one thing sure keeps the rails cleaner!
* Soon. (I’m optimistic.)
I’ve just been notified that I’ve made myself yet into the rail world again in China. I’m part of page 18 on the November 2011 edition of CRH Magazine, available on most HSR routes in China.
You’ll see me at the bottom left hand corner of the page. I’m featured there as a regular rider, and that was me on train G1004 as Tracy and I hurtled north from Zhuhai North to Nanjing South. That was a five-leg journey in just one day!
I’ve also broken 20,000 km on the rails as of late — I am very close to 21,000 km after a nine-hour trip on CRH train D28. We are off to Tianjin (again!) within the week…
Here’s the thing: if you thought high speed rail has “died” in China after the Wenzhou crash, you were wrong. They did have a chance to “die” if speeds on 350 km/h lines were adjusted down to 250 km/h for regular services, but there was enough pressure on the rail authorities so that speeds were kept high — 300 km/h for the moment.
In fact, at speeds over 300 km/h, it becomes a tad too fast for some. In actual fact, many trains on these lines run over the limit (even if just by a bit, like, say, 313 km/h). And you’re not condemned to watching the world go by outside your window. Just close the window shade and slumber back in your seat, especially if you’re in Business Class near the front of the train.
Some time back, I decided to cancel my “rail limit” ban, which was instituted right after Wenzhou. I bring in a (very) hefty CNY 10,000+ every year to the Chinese railways, and that’s “just” me. We are (purposefully) ignoring a wife here as well. Our new family brings in nearly CNY 20,000 to the rails every year. The rail ban would be a big impact — I did “only” 17 legs this year during the ban. (In 2010, 44 legs were registered in the same time.) So to that effect, the “rail limit” ban was pretty effective. It also triggered off a series of restrictive rail policies nationwide: Chinese HSR lay in ruins as works sites saw workers go home or the more angry ones mount a protest. The credibility and popularity of the person in charge of the mainland Chinese government organisation responsible for railway transportation on a nationwide scale, Sheng Guangzu, tanked. This was a classic case of both the butterfly effect and the domino effect.
About a few weeks back, though, the Chinese government decided to turn its attention to HSR again. I was sceptical because of the presence of Sheng Guangzu, who not only wasn’t supportive of HSR, but started clamping down on the whole thing. (Here, I want to make it clear that he gets no support from me for his tactics only; whether or not Sheng is a good guy or a bad guy is another thing altogether.)
But then the authorities showed very clear signs that they weren’t going to let go of HSR. I choose HSR because the maximum delay there is an hour — and you’ll end up in the press anyway because trains are supposed to be on time — all the time.
The mass media in China is predominantly anti-HSR, and that’s the thing: like the Mac in its olden and un-golden days, these critics just don’t get it. They never knew that for as little as about CNY 50, you can have the freedom to ride (even if for a short distance) in a seat that folds out like a bed. These guys are clueless about how much we’re saving the planet when we zip at speeds to the tone of 300 km/h and counting. And talk about “human rights”: you get more violations of these in the air (bad stewardesses and “flip-back-half-the-way” airline companies) than you get on the rails.
Guess what? I’m nixing the rail travel limits and am headed straight back to the rails. If I’m travelling a mileage within 1,500 km, I’ll do rail. For anything more than that, it’s still rail if there is an HSR option. Air is OK but only for long-haul on lines without an HSR option. This travel policy is good for Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao.
China’s HSR won’t die. It’s got me (and my wife). We’ve happily converted to rail. Now I just have to buy her Business Class tickets for our trip to Tianjin (coming soon!)…
The Chinese railways seem to have had an awful time as of late. The crash in Wenzhou was a man-made disaster that was as big a deal as Chernobyl. (Here’s more: there was a recent case where Train 1164 fell off the tracks. Now HSR and regular rail are all fragile.) The culprit: a serious of bad moves by current head of the railways authorities, Sheng Guangzu (盛光祖).
Let me just say that this guy is the wrong man for the wrong post, coming at the wrong time. A little list tells the tale…
That’s not to say Sheng is all “boo, evil and devils” and stuff like that: he opened the Beijing-Shanghai HSR, gave us select lie-flat Business Class seats, and opened up the VIP lounges. You’ve got to give him credit for that. But apart from that, this is the Gil Amelio a la Apple for the Chinese railways world, and he’s got to know that there are only two ways out:
Boom. It’s a binary thing. Zero — or one. Off — or on. Get better — or go. Easy as that.
Steve Jobs nixed Gil Amelio. Someone down the line is going to do the same to the lost and confused Sheng, especially if he doesn’t get his act together.
The last 12-24 hours have been a crazy one my end, with me being the “rail guy” that an increasing number of people “see” via my tweets and Facebook posts. For what it’s worth, this single, isolated case of a collision between two southbound trains in Wenzhou, southeastern coastal China, hasn’t had the oomph for me to shy away from the trains — and it probably won’t keep me off the tracks.
So far, I’ve taken Chinese HSR trains (plus regular rail trains) for over 200 times, racking up a mileage of over 30,000 km in the past four years (2008, 2009, 2010 and just over half of 2011). And while a crash is unfortunate, I still have to find an excuse to see me (and Tracy) airborne again.
I’ve been active in the conversation about the train crash on Sina Weibo, mainland China’s biggest microblogging platform. On 2 March 2011, at 10:38 Beijing time, if you were watching my Weibo stream, you saw this:
I’ve been on the Chinese high speed railway trains for hundreds of times, and I’m often in VIP class behind the driver at the front of the train. I can use that to assure that the Chinese HSR is safe, and I have nearly 20,000 km of mileage behind this to prove that it’s safe. Easy: if the HSR isn’t safe, along with the death of my driver comes my death as well! (我坐過百次以上中國高鐵，經常是坐在司機後的特等座的，我可以以此保證中國高鐵是安全的，總里程將近兩萬公里的我可以擔保中國高鐵是安全的。很簡單，高鐵不安全的話，司機死我死!)
Of course, since I tweeted that, I don’t deny that — David Feng doesn’t eat his words. But take a look at when this thing was posted: 2 March 2011. We are about four and a half months away from that period in time right now. Nobody can predict the future — it’s true. (Especially the weathermen. Beijing is due for an afternoon deluge and as I’m posting this at 14:49, I’ve yet to see the heavens open.)
So, it’s simple: I can’t go ahead and post stuff like “So and so will happen at so and so” unless I’m the one in charge. When I married Tracy, I posted the “MARRIED” tweet after we were married. What if there were last-minute red tape hassles? Thinking of it this way, I tweet with caution.
I’d like to delve back into the post about the Chinese HSR being safe (which I posted in March 2011): this statement was made out of personal experience — it in no way replaces official stances. The most that this tweet could have hoped to be was a personal statement of a non-affiliated individual “outside the railways system”. I fund all rail travel (at times, Tracy and family step in, but over 90% of my travels are and remain self-funded). If you think I’ve living off the rail ministry, who might be secretly reimbursing my travels, you’re free to Google it out for yourself: There are no secret cash affiliations between the Chinese railways ministry and me, David Feng. The most that there could have been is a simple-as-heck “carrier-and-passenger” link.
I also stated in the March tweet that “if the driver dies, I die as as well”. This bit I also kid you not. In much of the rail travel I did, I rode in the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity HSR, which uses almost exclusively CRH3C trains. (Germans may come to think of this train as the “Velaro CN” train.) On these trains, the front of the train is open for riders to travel in. Seats 1-8 in the frontmost carriage, right behind the driver, are considered VIP class. Riders are totally free to sit behind the driver and to enjoy life “right behind the controls”, where they are separated from the driver by only a glass window and a glass door.
Given where this VIP lounge at the front of the train is, let’s think of it this way: if there’s an accident, the driver would nearly certainly die. Given how close we are to the driver at that part of the train, we’d struggle coming out as one single part as well. Hence, the statement “if the driver dies, I die too” is not an exaggeration! I often travel in Seat 1, which is very close to the driver: I think we are separated only by mere metres.
And it is not like that I have been in that part of the train only once — or have only taken the HSR a few times. Through to 23 July 2011, my total mileage since 2008 has been 36,053.33 km over 215 rides. Only six of these rides, totalling not even 1,000 km, are outside the mainland of China. For the 13,668 km of travel I did this year, 63.3% were on high speed rail. That’s just about a third; it means two rides out of three are on those CRH trains that plowed into each other last night.
Although I am not the Number 1 rider on the Chinese rails (outside of rail staff), I do have a fair bit of miles behind me. Chinese trains have taken me to Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, Chengdu, Qingdao, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Shanghai, Harbin, and places beyond. I think the only bits of China I’ve yet to touch are those in the west — like Xinjiang, Tibet or Lanzhou.
Despite being one of the most avid riders of the Chinese rails (I’m sometimes surprised by HSR attendants who just outright “know me” — those who go, “Do you ride this line a lot? I think I know you…”), I do not in any way control or own financial interests in the Chinese Ministry of Railways or any part of the Chinese HSR system. I’d also like to take this chance to go back to what happened last night, and state very clearly:
The incident of 23 July 2011 was one which was completely outside my control.
(I think that not even the minister of railways wanted to see this happen.)
Having said that, one incident involving casualties cannot be enough to completely shatter the Chinese railway safety record.
But an accident that has happened is an accident — period, and what’s next has to be improvements in safety and a tally of who was responsible for the crash. I think that a responsible railways ministry might want to take the time to do a little soul searching and do all possible to improve safety across the whole network. For those involved in “the making of” this crash (sorry to say it this way), my stance is simple: Punish, demote, and fire, as needed. I’m impartial on this — from the grassroots ranks to the highest echelons of the rail ministry, my stance is the same.
Like I said, one crash can’t drag a whole nation’s HSR down. I’ll still be taking trains to get from A to B. China still has some miraculously fast — and safe — trains running at 350 km/h — one of my favourites, the Beijing-Tianjin Intercity HSR, runs at speeds well over 300 km/h. That line counts me as a veteran rider. This crash won’t keep me away from my Rail First policy — I will still be considering the railways first, when doing domestic travel in China or within much of Western and Central Europe.
This is a fair lengthy blog post, and it has just about summarised my points of view regarding this crash. I leave this post as-is. Of course there might be those who might thinking that cherry picking and mixing and moulding parts of this post might be a cool way to distort truths. If that’s the case, well, I’ll let it be (and give the censors a day off) — but be forewarned: people who use this post to distort truths will bear all consequences and liabilities, including civil and criminal responsibilities.