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All aboard for China's fast-track future?

By Lara Farrar, for CNN
  • Hundreds of millions of journeys being made during Chinese New Year holiday period
  • Chinese government investing billions of dollars in train lines and high speed trains
  • Ticket prices on new high-speed trains too expensive for many people, including migrant workers

Beijing (CNN) -- As Chinese New Year approaches, hundreds of millions of people have already begun long journeys back to far-flung provinces across China to celebrate with their families.

The journey home for the country's most important holiday, which this year falls on February 3, marks the largest annual migration of humans on Earth.

About 2.5 billion passenger trips are expected to be made during this year's Spring Festival, up 11.6 percent from last year, according to a report in the state-run China Daily newspaper.

Getting home is often difficult. Travelers, many of whom are migrant workers who only see their families once a year, sometimes waiting for hours, even days, in cramped stations, trying to buy tickets to ride home on overcrowded trains or buses. Airline ticket prices spike dramatically and roadways are perpetually clogged with drivers.

Bad weather conditions can make travel even more difficult. In 2008, snowstorms left half a million passengers stranded for days in a train station in the southern city of Guangzhou.

The high-speed rail makes no sense to Chinese people. Why? Because it is too expensive
--Zhao Jian, Beijing Jiaotong University

China's government has been working to improve infrastructure to make travel easier. Over this year's Spring Festival, hundreds of additional trains and buses are carrying passengers home and more planes are in the air. The Ministry of Railways has even, for the first time, opened a special page on its website to provide instant updates on train delays and ticket prices.

China is also embarking on a substantial transportation infrastructure overhaul, aimed at connecting its population of more than a billion people more quickly and carrying goods across the country more easily.

Partly as a result of billions of dollars in stimulus money poured into the economy to fend off the financial crisis that hit in 2008, Beijing has given the green light for both national and provincial-level projects involving the construction of massive new highways, railways and airports that could radically transform the way people move around.

The country's annual spend on transport infrastructure, including roads and railways, now exceeds 1.1 trillion yuan ($165 billion), the China Daily reported.

China's investment includes thousands of kilometers of high-speed rails. Already there are high-speed lines, with trains capable of speeds up to 350 kilometers per hour, running in the north between Beijing and Tianjin and in the south between Shanghai and Hangzhou and Wuhan and Guangzhou. The country will invest 700 billion yuan ($106 billion) in building railways this year alone, according to a report in the state-run People's Daily newspaper.

A route between Shanghai and Beijing will open in June. It is expected to cut travel time to less than five hours, compared with the current 10-hour journey. The country currently has 2,100 kilometers of high-speed track and by 2015, the country will have 16,000 kilometers, according to the railway ministry.

Supporters of China's high-speed systems, including the World Bank, say their construction has created new jobs and their completion will free up traditional railways to carry more freight, save resources and improve "the environment through the transfer of traffic from more costly and environmentally damaging modes of transport," John Scales, the World Bank's transport coordinator in China, said in a 2010 report on the country's high-speed rail development.

I do want to take the high-speed trains, but I don't have too much money. It would be really nice if the price went lower
--Zhang Gengsheng, plumber

Others are not so sure high-speed railways are the best solution to ease the overcapacity that plagues China's transport network.

"The high-speed rail makes no sense to Chinese people," said Zhao Jian, a professor at Jiaotong University in Beijing who researches rail economics. "Why? Because it is too expensive. The construction cost is too high. The operation cost is too high. I don't think Chinese people can afford the price. At present, the high-speed rail is a big loss."

Zhao said the money spent to build one kilometer of high-speed rail could build three kilometers of traditional rail. He also said in some areas in the country, traditional railways have been closed, forcing passengers to take the more expensive trains.

The result has been the coining of a new phrase now hot on the Chinese Internet: bei gaosu, which essentially means "to be forced to take the high-speed trains and accept their high ticket prices."

And many wonder what will happen to those on tighter budgets -- specifically migrant workers who make up the bulk of train passengers -- who may not be able to afford the higher price of high-speed trains.

"I don't think the Ministry of Railways did a careful and convincing investigation about who tries to get home," said Zhang Dunfu, a sociology professor at Shanghai University. "The decision-makers may be influenced by people who are rich or who are politically elite. Migrants, like the common people, they have absolutely nothing to say before the policy is carried out."

But a report on the website of China's railway ministry titled "The Benefit of High-Speed Rail for the People" highlights how villagers living along a high-speed rail between Wuhan and Guangzhou have benefited. More tourists are making trips to the region, raising the incomes of the villagers, who are mostly farmers, it says. The fast trains, the report says, are "changing people's traditional thinking of time and space."

But many passengers aren't thinking about "time and space." They're thinking about cost.

I don't care how much it costs. I would spend up to 200 yuan for going back home by high-speed train
--Chen Guang, migrant worker

Zhang Gengsheng earns 3,000 yuan per month (about $441) working as a plumber. He recently bought a train ticket back home to Suzhou, a city outside of Shanghai, FOR 60 yuan ($9). It's for a conventional train. The 30-year-old says he is willing to take high-speed trains if they become available on his route -- and if the price is right. It will take him more than 8 hours to travel 575 km home in a "hard seat" car, which is the lowest class on conventional Chinese passenger trains.

"I do want to take the high-speed trains," he said. "But I don't have too much money. It would be really nice if the price went lower."

On average, a second class ticket on a high-speed train from, say, Wuhan to Guangzhou, would cost nearly 500 yuan ($73). A first class ticket is 780 yuan ($114).

A comparable ticket on a conventional train between the same destinations is 143 yuan ($21) while a first class ticket is 238 yuan ($38). The traditional rail takes 13 hours while the high-speed train is only four.

Chen Guang is a 41-year-old migrant worker who works as a carpenter in Shanghai. He earns 2,300 (about $338) yuan per month. He recently spent 45-yuan ($7) train ticket back to his home in Huainan, a city in Anhui Province. It will take him nine hours to travel over 570 km home on a traditional train -- there are no high-speed trains running that route, but he says he'd pay a higher price if high-speed trains become available.

"Yeah, I definitely will take (high-speed trains)," he said. "You only go home once a year, I don't care how much it costs. I would spend up to 200 yuan for going back home by high-speed train."