New China hits the buffers of reality

Poor resources have produced a dire case of gridlock, writes Teresa Poole

Peking - From a distance, it looks as if a three-tiered Chinese pagoda is floating high on the polluted haze of the Peking skyline. But as one draws nearer, the classical roofs and red pillars gradually reveal their place on top of a towering archway, the focal point for a building which has flung its arms east and west with such lack of constraint that it is now half a mile long. Not since Chairman Mao constructed the Great Hall of the People in the late Fifties has Chinese architectural ambition grasped its territory as audaciously as the new Peking West Railway Station.

Here is a palace fit for the trains of emperors, except that any sense of classical Chinese proportion was long ago abandoned. Opened in January, the 5bn yuan (pounds 400m) station is more than 300 feet high, covers 580,000 square yards, and is floored in marble. Golden Chinese characters are mounted on the archway, giant replicas of President Jiang Zemin's inscription of the station's name.

A workforce of 20,000 built this colossus in three years and China claims it is the biggest railway station in Asia. But what the country needs is more trains. In a sharp reminder of the reality behind this folie de grandeur, Peking West has only six platforms and fewer than 30 train departures a day.

On a hot August noon, the waiting rooms inside are overflowing, while hundreds more passengers lie outside, sprawled in the shadow cast by the huge facade. These are the lucky ones, the ones with tickets, because even the railway ministry admits it can meet only two-thirds of present demand.

Liu Cheng and his companions are sitting opposite the main station entrance, seemingly unsure whether they are part of the problem or the solution. There are 15 youths, between the ages of 20 and 22, dressed in oversized acrylic suit trousers and open cotton shirts.

They are newly graduated from the Number 13 Railway Vocational School in Changchun, north-east China, skilled in the repair of railway-construction equipment. After a 14-hour trip from Changchun to Peking, the lads are waiting for the evening, when they will take a 26-hour train to Changsha city, in southern Hunan province, a total journey of 1,700 miles. They are on their way to their first jobs and most are leaving home for the first time.

Liu and his team have been assigned to a track-expansion project near Changsha. The bottleneck on the railways is so serious for passengers and goods that Peking plans to spend pounds 26bn over five years laying 6,250 miles of track and buying rolling stock. Liu's task is urgent, because China's rail gridlock has become one of the most extreme examples of what happens when the insatiable demands of New China run headlong into the limited resources of Old China. The mystery is how this planned expansion will be paid for.

The state railways are a loss-making enterprise in the best traditions of a command economy. With 3,370,000 workers, they employ more people than the population of Singapore, and still provide the schools, medical clinics and housing compounds to which staff have grown accustomed.

Starting salaries for Liu and his friends are pounds 25 a month or so, but they believe the railways will be a reliable employer. "I heard that the railway under normal conditions will guarantee to pay a salary every month," said Wang Youxiang.

Railways in China did not have an auspicious start: the first stretch was built near Shanghai and bought by the governor in 1877 so that he could tear it out. A century ago, China had 370 miles of track, compared to Britain's 21,000 miles. The Qing dynasty rulers did not become railway enthusiasts until they realised its virtues for troop deployment. Since then, and especially after the Communist victory in 1949, expansion of the railways across China has been a prime means for Peking to extend its central control.

Apart from the chaotic years of the early Cultural Revolution, travel around China under Communism was strictly regulated. Without permission from one's "work unit", buying a train ticket could be impossible, until the era of reform dawned in the early Eighties.

In the years since then, freedom to travel has been greedily seized. And in a developing country this size, those journeys must be done by train, often on bone-numbingly hard wooden benches for days at a time.

In 1987 the annual tide of "floating population" started to swell as unemployed farmers headed for jobs in the cities and thriving coastal regions. These days, China's railway system has to support the world's biggest voluntary internal migration during the New Year crush, when most of the 90 million migrant workers head home for their annual holidays.

Li Zhumin, 23 years old and weather-beaten by her job selling fruit in Peking's outer counties, sits on a newspaper on the floor of Peking West surrounded by boxes of presents for her family in Xinyang, in Henan province.

It is her annual visit home, and the 10-hour trip costs just 63 yuan by hard seat. "Not comfortable," she laughs. Like airlines around the world, Peking West is now charging excess baggage for more than 20kg of luggage in an attempt to persuade travellers to curtail their ambitious packing.

It is not only workers who are squeezing into tightly packed carriages. The introduction of permanent two-day weekends just over a year ago and the provision of paid holiday by foreign-invested companies has prompted a craze for sight-seeing trips by Chinese within their own country.

On Platform 2, the Erwuti family emerge cautiously after China's longest train journey, a 2,400-mile, three-day voyage from Urumqi, in Western Xinjiang province, to Peking. They are Uighur Muslims on a two-week holiday, and will journey on to Beidaihe, China's most famous seaside resort, where the masses and the leaders sunbathe on carefully segregated beaches. A sack of Xinjiang melons and boxes of raisins are balanced carefully on their luggage trolley.

As the Erwuti family struggles through the bowels of the Level Two Basement arrivals hall, Peking West is already showing the strain of being a patriotic trophy. Just two months after its inauguration, large cracks started opening up in the underground levels. This week, after heavy rains, piles of sawdust were dotted about in the main atrium to collect water leaking through the ceiling.

The station may have been planned as a grandiose symbol of New China, but it has already been necessary to summon a familiar figure from Old China: the repairman.

This is the latest in a summer series on railways of the world.

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