Train from Moscow descending Badaling Pass towards Beijing in 1987.[Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
Experiencing the opening of China’s very first high-speed railway in 2008
The year of 2008, a special period in time for China. Beijing would host the 2008 Olympics while the country would launch its initial high-speed rail line. A project that would grow from a relatively short track into the world’s largest network reaching by August 2020 of 36,000 kilometres. I was there right from the start experiencing many aspects of its evolution.
Twin-deck train departing Beijing in 2004.[Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
In 1987 my first experience of China, I had traveled overland by train from Scotland. Through the subsequent 33 years, my passion for travel has taken me mostly by rail across the length and breadth of this vast country. The system then very different from today. Mostly journeys were by 18-coach ‘green trains’. Although often long and slow, for travellers such as myself they became something of an adventure, an experience. In 1996, heading from Beijing to Dongbei (Northeastern China), two hours out from Beijing the train pulled into Tianjin. I remember the platform staff standing to attention, saluting as the train stopped. Many trolleys were lined up, filled with snacks, drinks, fruit.
CRH testing near China Railway Museum Beijing in August 2007. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
By the early 2000’s, substantial improvements were happening to services between the neighbouring cities, Beijing and Tianjin. The latter then undergoing substantial transformation into a major centre for business and technology. Double-deck diesel multiple-unit trains had been introduced providing comfortable journeys in under 90 minutes. However, traffic was steadily increasing and a new system of rail becoming essential to cope with demand.
CRH approaching Beijing Railway Station passing conventional train in February 2008. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
In July 2001, awarding the 2008 Olympic Games to Beijing became a stimulus for major infrastructure upgrades. Tianjin would hold football preliminary matches. Partly in response, a very fast rail corridor would be initiated, allowing spectators and visitors rapid connection between both cities. This of course would benefit Tianjin well after 2008.
Photo taken on Aug 5, 2008, shows the destination board at Beijing South Railway Station [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
Indeed the initial project would become a test bed for future rollout of an advanced rail network nationwide. I remember when the initial scheme was proposed, many wondered if it was feasible, would it be safe? Speeds up to 350km/hr were talked of! China then had passenger trains running between 120 and 180km/hr. The aim was for fastest journey times of 29 minutes reflecting Beijing 2008 being the 29th Olympics!
Photo taken on Aug 5, 2008, shows the lounge waiting area at Beijing South Railway Station [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
I avidly followed the line’s progress. Beijing South would be transformed into a vast, modern terminal dedicated to high-speed services, possibly the largest train station in Asia. In July 1996 I had experienced the earlier South Station returning from Dongbei. It was small, mostly outdoors and open to the weather with very few of the amenities seen in the new generation stations of today.
Photo taken on Aug 5, 2008, shows the main departure hall at Beijing South Railway Station [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
East of Beijing’s Dashanzi 798 Art Zone there is a circular rail line, several kilometers long. A testing track for railway developments, it is located next to the China Railway Museum. Several of the country’s large, but now retired, steam locomotives are on display there. In August 2007 I spotted a prototype high-speed unit being tested. It moved slowly but some months later I saw another going in and out of the main Beijing Railway Station, possibly testing for actual main-line use.
Photo taken on Aug 5, 2008, shows the CRH unit on service Beijing – Tianjin [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
The Beijing high-speed line would be 117 kilometres in length with 100 kilometres running along a precast concrete elevated viaduct. Construction started in July 2005 with the first fully operational services going into operation on 1 August 2008. Each train, with speeds over 300km/hr could carry up to 600 seated passengers with trains departing and arriving every few minutes.
Photo taken on Aug 5, 2008, shows the passengers on CRH to Tianjin [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
At that time I was working with Radio Beijing AM774. On 5th August I was invited along with a group of my colleagues to newly opened Beijing South. We would experience one of China’s first high speed services. The station itself, incredible in scale. A vast departure hall fitted out with comfortable lounge chairs and even a grand piano. Today with rapidly increasing passenger numbers, those features have gone so increasing essential waiting space. Giant display boards in Chinese and English showed that the vast majority of trains ran between Beijing and Tianjin with a few going to Qingdao or Shanghai, which then were not part of the fast rail system.
Photo taken on Aug 5, 2008, shows the Tianjin Railway Station departure hall. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
It was an exciting moment going down by escalator to the platform with sleek, white painted train units awaiting their passengers. Entering the coach, everything brand new with excellent views from the large windows. I sat back in my semi-reclining seat. Pulling out from the station, acceleration was both quiet and smooth meaning handheld drinks would not be spilled. There was very little sensation of speed but the digital carriage displays showed us rapidly reaching up to and over 300km/hr. At that point cheering and clapping came from fellow, excited passengers. For all of us, this was a first-time rail experience.
Photo taken on Aug 5, 2008, shows CRH trains waiting to depart Tianjin to Beijing. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
I had a quick walk around the train, checking on its facilities from excellent toilet units to a compact cafe car. An onboard announcement had me returning to my seat. Just over twenty minutes out from Beijing we were already slowing down for our on-time arrival into Tianjin! The station, close to Haihe River, with a long history serving the city, had been considerably upgraded to handle the new, streamlined services.
Photo taken in 2018 shows the Tianjin Railway Station. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
We had time for lunch in one of the city’s famed restaurants before back onboard a train for our re- turn up to Beijing. Sitting in the cafe car, I had a cold drink, hardly finishing it before I saw Beijing’s Yongdingmen Gate and hearing an announcement of approaching the South Station. What an experience! During the journey I had managed to record a feature for Radio AM774, about my impressions of that day. The new railway, a first for China, it was delivered right on time for the 2008 Olympics commencing on 8 August.
Photo taken in June 2019 shows a CRH train approaching Tianjin. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
Over subsequent years I have been regularly ‘commuting’ between both cities, such is the convenience created by the high-speed services. Over this period I have also watched steady upgrades and improvements including the opening of ultra-modern Tianjin West Station.
In June 2018, as part of a BBC Scotland programme, ‘Scots in China’, I was filmed at Beijing South. Once onboard the latest Fuxing train I would talk about my experiences, over the years, of China’s railway development.
Photo taken in June 2018 shows filming “Scots in China” with Bruce at Beijing South Railway Station. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
The success of the Tianjin high-speed service paved the way for ongoing construction of a nation- wide fast rail network now 36,000 kilometers but with considerable expansion planned. This I feel is one of China’s greatest recent achievements.
Gone are the days of long queues at station ticket offices, booking now via smartphones. On-board, smartly dressed coach attendants are testimony to the very high levels of service now found across the country’s railways.
Photo taken in 2019 shows the Tianjin West Railway Station. [Photo by Bruce Connolly/Provided to chinadaily.com.cn]
For me, my China Story started with and has continued with railways. I feel delighted to have been on the initial high-speed rail, to have watched the system’s growth while benefitting from it for regular travel to distant cities.
Today, as I write this piece, in Tianjin, I look from my hotel window towards the city’s main rail- way station. I smile, thinking that is where high-speed started in August 2008 and I was one of those early passengers!